A question on the cost of nuclear power

If you take the problem of climate change at all seriously, it’s obviously necessary to consider what, if any, role nuclear (fission) energy should play in a response. I discussed this not long ago and concluded that “it may well be that, at least for an interim period, expansion of nuclear fission is the best way to go.” However, on the basis of my rather limited survey of the evidence, I suggested that, as a source of electricity, nuclear energy is about twice as expensive as coal or gas. If so, conservation is the first choice, and we should only move to alternative sources of electricity when the easy conservation options are exhausted.

By contrast, Mark Kleiman says that “Nukes, if run right, are fully competitive with coal, and a hell of a lot cleaner”, and Brad DeLong says “He’s 100% completely correct”, and Matt Yglesias takes a similar view.

Kleiman cites the example of France, which I don’t find entlrely convincing, since the French have always given substantial subsidies to nuclear energy. He argues that the US made a mess of nuclear energy for regulatory reasons, but doesn’t say anything about the British experience, which didn’t have the same problems and was still an economic disaster. I’ve looked briefly at Canada’s CANDU program, where experience appears to be mixed at best.

Can anyone point me to a reliable source of comparative information on this? Is there general agreement, or a partisan divide between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear advocates ? I’d also be interested in comments on the general question raised in my opening sentence.

24 thoughts on “A question on the cost of nuclear power

  1. There’s a large fusion reactor at a distance of 1 astronomical unit from the planet which seems to run quite well.

  2. John, I think the questions you raise are particularly relevant to Australia.

    Australia had at my last inspection about 25 per cent of the world’s uranium and yet no commercial nuclear power. Coal is being frowned on by the ‘global warming’ believers (particularly that dirty brown coal from depressed East Gippsland) and Bass Strait oil is not going to last long. We have large geologically stable areas of the outback which are geologically stable and could safely store nuclear wastes. In fact by exporting waste storage services we could make money and leave the world’s environment cleaner and safer.

    With current low interest rates (this is a key variable influencing the case for nuclear versus coal given the huge capital costs of nuclear) the only thing preventing Australia’s adoption of a safe and clean long-term source of electricity are some prejudiced greenies.

    Reasonable carbon taxes would decimate coal-based electricity generation in Australian and thereby decimate the aluminium smelting industry. Nuclear power is clean, safe, releases no greenhouse gases and would provide a cheap major power source for Australia.

  3. Aren’t countries like Japan entitled to exact trade penalties if we don’t sign Kyoto? I seem to remember talk of them thinking about it.

  4. I’d like to know what place nuclear power has in a deregulated, competitive energy market.

    Such a cumbersome, big-or-naught kind of a technology seems ill-suited to a dynamic market with multiple competing technologies. It has no niche. It would require central planning.

    Private investors alone wouldn’t touch it, without huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge government endorsement, contribution to the initial capital investment and subsidised electricity price, no matter how low the interest rates are.

    Nuclear has no niche – its a 1950s technology suited to 100% publicly owned and run 1950s energy sector.


  5. John,

    I don’t take climate change seriously because it is a background factor which I can do naught about, and which the numbers are increasingly proving.

    Having written that, nuclear energy? While I have a personal involvement in uranium discovery in Australia, it is a rather brute-force way of getting energy.

    What puzzles me is what force continually rotates protons – because the force is real – we use it to make proton precession magnetometers – and perhaps understanding that, might point us into new directions.

  6. This has troubled me for some time and I haven’t known where to find the information needed to reach an answer. I hope this thread will help.

    When I look at the number of accidents in power plants around the world, nuclear doesn’t seem very clean and safe to me.

    We can’t build perfect facilities or perform perfect maintenance so what will be the result of the inevitable accidents? Bridges fall down, aeroplanes crash and buildings collapse. It’s a fact of life and we accept it. Do we have to just accept that over time there will be radioactive no-go zones scattered across the world?

    Also, what about the demand side of things? How much can we reasonably get from simple efficiency? Are there structural changes we can make to reduce demand growth? How much demand reduction can we get for the same cost as building a power plant?



  7. Perhaps one way of achieving safety is through over-design. Last night there was a program on building the Brooklyn Bridge on ABC TV. When a scam operator included rotten wire in the cables it merely reduced their strength from 6 times to 4 times what was calculated as necessary to take the load.

    It would be hard to imagine such safety margins today. For example, I understand the World trade centre was built to withstand an airliner strike. It’s just that it was assumed the airliner would be slowing to land, not whacking into them under throttle.

  8. Steven den Beste says that fission power is not viable due to the costs of constructing the plant.

    “Much of the cost for modern fission power is amortized payment for the plant. And those costs have risen enormously; one of the reasons no-one builds fission plants anymore is that they are so costly in the US as to not be economically viable. (A lot of that is due to regulatory burdens; elsewhere in the world they’re being built all the time.)”

    He also discusses fusion and other technologies, and comes to the conclusion that we’re stuck with oil for a long time.


  9. Here’s another key quote:

    “Fission: Completely practical from an engineering standpoint. Completely useless from a political and economic standpoint, at least in the US. The cost of a new fission plant is stratospheric now because of the amount of liability insurance it would have to carry, even if for no other reason. And the regulatory burden is beyond belief. It’s been something like twenty years since the last design start for a fission plant in the US, and since the WPPS fiasco, no investor will be willing to take the chance again until something drastically changes.

    Coal: Coal works really well. That’s why it’s our primary source of energy.”

  10. John, I haven’t seen any non-partisan coverage of nuclear power costs in the public web, and I’ve looked around the web for it. There might be stuff in the academic literature, though. France’s nuclear program seems to be the most cost-competitive, so it might be a good place to look for information.

    The real problem with the debate seems to be that there are a bunch of theoretical improvements to reactor design out there that should improve safety and cost-efficiency, but because so few new reactors have been constructed there’s very few figures of how much the new ones will cost to run. It’s like examining the economics of air travel when the only things in the air are DC-3’s.

  11. Brian, your half right about the safety margins on the WTC, it being built to withstand a plane crash. The buildings were designed to stand up to being crashed into with such a force, that is why they did not fall over when hit. They did not design it for the fire which followed, which melted the frame of the building, causing the collapse. It is odd they failed to forsee the fires.

  12. Regards the comments that nuclear power can give us a major supply of energy, my understanding is that the world supply of uranium is not very large. Sources such as http://www.world-nuclear.org/sym/1999/pdfs/birol.pdf indicate that there is around 60 years of uranium supply, at the current rate of consumption. If more nuclear power stations are built, the uranium will run out sooner.

    The answer of course would seem to be fast-breeder reactors. But these are far more dangerous than ordinary nuclear power stations (most of the ones built are no longer in operation due to safety concerns) and are extremely expensive. It seems to me that, barring major leaps in technology (ie practical fusion), nuclear power will not be a major part of the world’s energy supply.

  13. The “there’s only 50 years of Uranium left” ignores another possibility – thorium, which can be used to radically stretch uranium supplies.

    Additionally, just because there’s only 50 years worth of uranium exploitable at current prices doesn’t mean there’s not more available if the price goes up (and, remember, plant costs make up a much greater fraction of the costs of nuclear power than in fossil-fuel power plants). I don’t how how credible the information on this link is this link is, but the basic principle that the more you’re prepared to pay for some mined quantity, the more that will be found, seems to be reasonably sound.

  14. I wonder how serious low estimates of reserves are given the adverse incentives firms have to look for the stuff. Nabarlek and Ranger took years to get off the ground with interminable delays and with considerable doubts as to whether the stuff would ever get to market. Roxby Downs did too for other (geological) reasons.

    How many small-cap explorers are out there looking for uranium both in Australia and overseas? A safer investment punt would be Google.

    The green movement can take credit for forcing a shift of much of the mineral exploration activity in Australia (not only for uranium) offshore.

  15. I wonder how serious low estimates of reserves are given the adverse incentives firms have to look for the stuff. Nabarlek and Ranger took years to get off the ground with interminable delays and with considerable doubts as to whether the stuff would ever get to market. Roxby Downs did too for other (geological) reasons.

    How many small-cap explorers are out there looking for uranium both in Australia and overseas? A safer investment punt would be Google.

    The green movement can take credit for forcing a shift of much of the mineral exploration activity in Australia (not only for uranium) offshore.

  16. Again as I’ve said in other blogs, why the hell not conservation and renewables. Consersation up to a very large portion of our energy use is the cheapest form of energy available.

    Beyond that in direct comparison to wind:

    Wind without storage (as a mix with other sources which provide a baseline) is $700 – $1000 a KW.

    Wind with storage and enough over capacity to supply energy as reliably as nukes is $2,900 – $3,200 per KW of compacity. Nukes are $3,000 to $4,000 per nuke KW. Is it cheaper in France? Well maybe. But France does not have a particularly big anti-nuclear movement. So why is the French government owned utility heavily in debt? And why have they stopped building new nukes? Could it be that they are too expensive.

    In short, wind as a baseline power source is cheaper than nukes. Not the cheapest of green solutions, nor the best. But it is pretty straightforward, if you are willing to pay nuke level prices for electricity you can get baseline quality wind. (Wind turbines+ storage.)

  17. Stop talking about the French nuclear example without mentioning the vast public subsidies! I hope you know my alma mater is very protective of its national industries, and the nuclear industry was very cozily protected.

  18. A good book on how much conservation can achieve is Factor four: doubling wealth – halving resource use by E von Weizsacker (1997). But it doesn’t take sufficient account of the inertia in the present systems, where things are done this way because we have always done them this way.

  19. While knowing bugger all about the economics of nuclear power i would like to comment on Brian Bahnisch’s comment about over-design.

    The reality is, because nuclear fission relies on continual human input – even with the best technology the margin for human error is significant.

    Consider road accidents – how many are caused by defective vehicles? very few. The biggest factor that contributes to the road toll is the negligence of drivers – through speeding, drug use (inc alcohol), fatigue etc.

    Even then, when there is a fault with the vehicle it is usually because the car has not been maintained.

    It can’t really be compared to bridge design

    And then there are other factors

    With nuclear power you have to judge the probability of an accident – infintisemally small as it could possibly be made to be, still presents an unacceptable danger. The results of a full -scale nuclear meltdown cannot be really compared as far as I know to any other single event environmental or human disaster.

    The same goes for the management of nuclear waste afterwards.

    It’s interesting that the public liabilty insurance for nuclear power in the USA prohibits construction of reactors. Why would there be no insurer confident enough to back up the ‘safety’ of nuclear power?

  20. The answer to Michael’s question presumably lies in the fantastic scale of the damage. How in a democracy could we possibly compensate for something the size of Chernobyl, or the potential scale of Three Mile Island, or an accident in the French system which forces large scale evacuations of communities in neighbouring countries?

    Beyond the economics, it is about risk assessment, isn’t it? We can reduce the risk of an accident, or the risk of contamination from spent waste, but we can’t remove it. Humans being humans, make mistakes and cut corners. We already have a number of examples in which the operators have turned out to be corrupt even though they know the dangers of radiation.

    So there is a question which is really more about ethics than economics. We are faced with possibly very unpleasant consequences from the unchecked use of fossil fuels. Without nuclear power, we may have to curtail growth and change our standard of living etc etc. It could be terrible for the world’s poorest nations – I want to concede that possibility.

    Are we then entitled to use a form of energy which is catastrophically polluting in an accident? Particularly when that form of energy is technically very difficult to manage?

    To take it a stage further – are we entitled to use a form of energy which would have polluting consequences for many many generations, long after we have gone? Remembering that we have decided to do this anyway, by increasing the world’s CO2.

    It is interesting to sketch the future from all this. Imagine the large scale use of atomic energy – we are talking about hundreds of reactors. Many of these would be in totalitarian states and under-engineered by our standards. Think Chernobyl, and frightening plans in Indonesia. They would be in countries that would like to make dirty bombs.

    I think we are talking about a very different regulatory environment, in which our mob is forced to interfere much more in other sovereign nations.

    At the same time, we are looking at a world which (presumably) concedes the impact of greenhouse warming. Why else would you do it? So it has to decide that those fossil fuels should not be released into the atmosphere, at all, ever. That is a hugely changed economic and political scene anyway, unless we decide that all that petrol should be replaced by electricity, which in turn increases the demand for nuclear power stations…

    I am just trying to suggest that the switch to nuclear power has huge ramifications. It is not an easy fix, and I guess the economic and cost arguments would be very hard to work through.

    Here is an old but sobering statistic, which I am quoting from memory. Before TMI, the US did their risk analyses which indicated a very low probability of a serious accident. Then they worked out how many reactors would be working in the world if all the planned stations were built, using the available technology.

    And decided there would be an average of one catastrophic failure every four years.

  21. Michael, you are right, of course. Good design must extend to the human processes as well as the plant, but safety can never thereby be assured. I have a vague memory about some unprotected Japanese workers handling radioactive materials with buckets.

    David, well said. Very well said indeed!

    It is interesting that James Lovelock, the gaia man, in an article Once we’ve made the earth our enemy argues that the only way to solve the conflict between us and mother earth is the high-tech road. Among other things he says we “need a portfolio of energy sources, with nuclear playing a big part, at least until fusion power is an option, and we must stop fretting over the minute risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation.”

    He reckons a quarter of Brits will die from cancer anyway, mainly because they keep breathing in the “pervasive carcinogen” oxygen. He’s a green, he says, but speaks as a scientist. John Ralston Saul in his book On Equilibrium (I don’t agree entirely with the review but it gives a good outline of the book) reminds us that reason and expertise, unleavened by common sense and ethics, can be downright dangerous. IMO Lovelock lost it a bit in his enthusiasm for nuclear power.

    Presumably he discounts entirely a couple of major spills that could depopulate a large proportion of those fair islands.

    On the other hand, James Hansen seems to have a good grip on the global warming/climate change issue, an acute awareness of our responsibility to posterity and an awareness that an accommodation between human activity and the earth must be found. It is a huge task. Some would prefer to make such changes as are convenient and let the chips fall where they may.

    All is not gloom, according to Hansen. Annual emission increases have been decreasing in the past few years, resulting in a plateauing effect that is falling behind IPCC forecasts. This is due to a variety of factors, including the increased use of gas to limit CO2 emissions. Methane emissions have similarly plateaued presumably through the phasing out of CFCs.

    Nevertheless he says this may be a fluke. Given increased population, industrial development and the possibility of using dirtier forms of oil, such as shale oil, we can’t take anything for granted. He considers we need to hold CO2 emissions roughly where they are now.

    Hansen identifies all the major pluses and minuses contributing to ‘climate forcing’. At the moment it is 340 watts per m2 in and 339 watts out, giving a climate forcing equivalent to one Christmas light bulb per square metre on the planet. He thinks limiting additional forcing to one more watt per m2 will keep us in the safety zone, but no-one can be sure.

    New technologies will be required and improvements in existing technologies. Anything would help, including renewable energy and “next generation nuclear power, if acceptable, could be an important contribution.” Not essential, though, as coal is both the root problem and the biggest opportunity.

    Saving the planet, Hansen thinks, is doable, but will require more research including improved measurement of forcings other than CO2 and MH4 and much else besides.

    Furthermore, no-one should think that achieving his ‘alternative scenario’ is easy. Indeed “it surely requires concerted world-wide actions” including appropriate assistance to developing countries.

    Lovelock may well be right when says we may act only when there is a general sense of threat. But Hansen would say, I think, that given the positive feedback mechanisms apparent to any scientist who is on top of the issue, when the threat becomes apparent to all it may already be too late.

    Hence if advocates want to scare us to death it’s OK by me as long as they use scientifically supportable information.

  22. Fission is Fun! (But What About Renewable Energy?)
    An eminent quartet of left-leaning bloggers (Mark A.R. Kleiman, Brad DeLong, Kevin Drum, and Matthew Yglesias) have recently opined that the world should wholeheartedly embrace nuclear fission as a viable option to meet its energy needs without exacerb…

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