No nuclear renaissance

That’s the title of my piece in today’s Fin, an expanded version of my post here earlier this week

No nuclear renaissance

As the crisis in Japan continues to worsen, advocates of nuclear power have hastened to offer reassurance that their preferred power source is still a viable option in the race to replace carbon-based sources of energy. The earthquake and tsunami represent an extreme worst case, unlike to be observed in less seismically active areas than Japan.

So far at least, the worst case outcomes of a core meltdown and Chernobyl-style release of radioactivity have been avoided. Although some radioactive steam has been omitted, the total health risks remain far below those of coal-fired power, even disregarding CO2 emissions.

As Ziggy Switkowski observed yesterday, “We will learn from the tragic Japanese experience how to build more robust reactors, how to ensure multiple layers of protection work properly, how to better contain radioactive gases,”

All these points are valid, but, unfortunately, irrelevant. The attempt to restart the nuclear industry, sometimes optimistically called the ‘nuclear renaissance’ was already on the edge of failure before this crisis. Even with the best possible outcomes from the current crisis, nuclear power is off the agenda for a decade or more, at least in the developed world.

The nuclear renaissance was launched in the United States by George W Bush with the Nuclear Power 2010 program, unveiled in 2002. This was followed by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 which authorized $18.5 billion in loan guarantees. All of these initiatives were carried on and extended by the Obama Administration, which proposing to triple federal loan guarantees.

The initial reaction was highly positive, with dozens of proposals being announced. By the end of 2008, 26 proposals had been received by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But by the end of 2010, more than half of these had been abandoned, and ground had been broken on only two sites, with a total of four reactors. In October 2010, Constellation Energy pulled out of a joint venture with French firm EDF, saying that more loan guarantees, with less stringent conditions, were needed. Similar problems have emerged in France, Finland and other developed countries, where construction projects have encountered delays and massive cost over-runs, with the result that plans for expansion have been scaled back sharply.

Even assuming the best possible outcome from the Japanese crisis, the economic case for nuclear power, already fragile, has been severely, and probably fatally, damaged. At least eleven reactors have been taken off line. Three of the reactors at the Fukushima site have already been rendered permanently inoperable by the pumping of seawater into the storage pools and three others may follow. The evacuation of 200 000 people, at a time when the earthquake and tsunami have already stretched resources to the limit, will have massive costs, running into the billions unless the situation is resolved rapidly.

Doubtless, as Switkowski has argued, the failures in cooling and containment systems that gave rise to the present crisis can be overcome and reactor designs modified to improve safety. But safety doesn’t come cheap, and redesigns mean delay. With no prospect of any further increases in subsidies and loan guarantees, it seems likely that most of the proposals for new nuclear power plants in the US will be abandoned. And, if only for reasons of diversification and speed of construction, the lost Japanese reactors will probably be replaced by gas-fired plants, with some renewables.

But why are the economics of nuclear so bad? In part, it is simply a matter of technology. Nuclear power has turned out to be more expensive than its advocates have expected, while alternative sources of energy, particularly gas, have become cheaper. Even solar photovoltaics, long seen as impractical, are now cost competitive with nuclear on some calculations.

But the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. Fears about safety have meant that nuclear power plants have been held to much higher safety standards than alternatives like coal, which routinely spew pollutants of all kinds into the atmosphere.

More important than these fears, however, is the fear and ignorance displayed by those who have obstructed the most important single factor needed for nuclear power to become viable – a price on emissions of carbon dioxide. Some claim, like Lord Monckton, that climate science is a plot to restore the fortunes of global communism. Others like Cardinal Pell, who apparently believes that nitrogen is a greenhouse gas, say that, having ‘studied this stuff a lot’, they are qualified to overrule the experts.

Ironically, many opponents of climate science pose as defenders of nuclear power. In reality, they are its deadliest enemies.

98 thoughts on “No nuclear renaissance

  1. I’ve pretty much avoided this debate; I think we need to get to the aftermath stage to get a clear picture and I admit to considerable ambivalence. But I don’t think this marks the end of nuclear – not in Japan and not in China or India where the most new construction appears to be. Maybe it will be enough to prevent nuclear in Australia for the foreseeable future but it won’t be renewables that are the winners, it will be fossil fuels.

    Unlike Bluerock I think the fossil fuel industry is happy to have heated battles between pro and anti nuclear advocates because ultimately they feel more threatened by nuclear than by renewables as they hold views closer to those on BNC and can see nuclear slotting straight into the existing electricity grids, able to deliver 24/7 power in quantities equal to coal. Having strong anti-nuclear advocates and sentiments independent of fossil fuel business as usual advocacy is allowing them to put off having to engage in anti-nuclear advocacy themselves; as long as nuclear is as-well-as and not instead-of, fossil fuel interests can pretend they share a free market low regulation ideology. Anti-environmental pro-nuclear advocacy predates the climate issue and that crossover of ideology is why IMO we see so many pro-nuclear opponents of carbon pricing despite it being the most effective way to undermine public opposition to nuclear energy.

    Now, I want to say I’d prefer not to go the mass nuclear route to limit emissions and, if ever governments are brave and sensible enough to implement carbon pricing at levels that are effective it would advantage of nuclear, but less so if this crisis results in more regulated and costlier nuclear. There are other reasons besides emissions to think that excessive consumption as a human right cannot be sustained and some of the pro-nuclear arguments seem to studiously avoid consideration of the consequences of unrestrained growth of energy use, preferring not to examine the ways it links to other global problems and instead link to a cornucopian view of the future.

    Nuclear is going to be part of the world’s energy mix, like it or not and should not be prevented from ongoing R&D to develop better and ever safer technologies but it needs strong international regulation and oversight that I’m not sure an absolute anti-nuclear stance can deliver a positive contribution – an absolute opposition to long term waste storage facilities for example will not give us better safer waste disposal facilities. I don’t think nuclear should get the lion’s share of R&D either – large scale energy storage and distribution to support renewables are worth pursuing, way ahead of Carbon Capture and Storage which is the worst example of greenwash I’ve seen. And Renewables have shown a strong trend of improvement in efficiency and cost, enough to make me doubt the ‘renewables can’t do it line and have earned their place as genuine alternatives to fossil fuels.

  2. Giving renewables orders of magnitude lower subsidies than nuclear or fossil fuels is sand bagging fossil fuel. Despite these lower cumulative subsidies, renewables still produce more energy than nuclear.

    Between $US43-46 billion of subsidies were granted to renewables and biofuels in 2009, either through direct grants or market-based mechanisms such as feed-in tariffs, renewable energy credits or certificates, tax credits, and other direct subsidies.
    Hundreds of Billions is the estimated Economic cost of the Chernobyl accident. Add this to the super subsidees of Military spending that have pushed developmont of nuclear research for 6 decades.
    The recent International Energy Agency estimate of $US557 billion that world governments spent on subsidising fossil fuels in 2008. The G20 group has pledged, but not yet acted, to reduce those subsidies.

  3. Fran Barlow :
    That’s almost the complete opposite of the truth. Renewables are largely a sandbag for fossil HC here, since they can pretend to a job they can’t actually do.

    Wrong. It’s exactly as I said.

    Want a nuke? Find billions of dollars in capital – good luck with that because no private investors will risk their money. Spend years on the *necessary* planning, safety, licensing process. Start building. Hope there aren’t massive delays and cost overruns – but it’s very likely there will be. If you’re lucky you’ll have one new nuke in 10 years. If you’re lucky.

    Want a wind farm? Arrange finance – easy to do because there’s lots of private capital available. Get the necessary surveys and licensing done. Build your wind farm – easily and reliably done in *months*.

    Want solar? Phone a firm and they can have it on your roof in a day or two.

    This not a complicated concept to grasp.

    * Nuclear Power Cannot Solve Climate Change. Nuclear power plants cannot be built quickly enough and in a safe and secure manner to be a major global solution for climate change.

    Anyway, it’s all a moot debate – nukes can’t compete economically with renewables and the public have just had another excellent demonstration of the horror they can unleash when things go wrong. You should find a new obsession – nukes are dead.

  4. Ken Fabos :
    …it won’t be renewables that are the winners, it will be fossil fuels.

    If the public remain confused, ignorant and mute about the terrible urgency of climate change. How bad will the floods get or the droughts or killer heatwaves before enough people wake up?

    Unlike Bluerock I think the fossil fuel industry is happy to have heated battles between pro and anti nuclear advocates because ultimately they feel more threatened by nuclear than by renewables…

    Have you actually looked at what the fossil industry puts out? You should. Koch Industries’ network of propaganda mills are strongly pro-nuclear, anti-renewable. Why? Because they know nukes cannot be deployed quickly enough to offer any threat to their toxic industry. But they support nukes because they know they will impede deployment of renewables.

    Nuclear is going to be part of the world’s energy mix…

    How much? Even the pro-nuke IEA predicts they are going nowhere fast: “The share of nuclear power increases from 6% in 2008 to 8% in 2035.”

    Nukes are and will remain a niche power source. Given the cost and technology trajectory for renewables and the increasing costs for nuclear, it will become increasingly difficult to justify nukes – no matter how much a government tilts the playing field in its favour (as is happening in the UK right now).

  5. no private investors will risk their money.

    I just watched ‘Inside Job” and highly recommend it:

    One of the key points were the perverse incentives behind the Ponzi scheme finance bubble. Traders and investment bankers were taking huge risks knowing that the upside for them was on one scale while their downside risk were socialized.

    It struck me that this was similar to the problem with nuclear financing. Nuclear investors also get to privatize profits but socialize losses with loan guarantees and public picking up the insurance costs for disasters that can have reached hundreds of billions of dollars in the case of Chernobyl.

  6. jakerman,

    I watched that last week – most of it with my mouth half open. I’m still stunned at how brazen these ****ers are and still walking free and still paying themselves multi-million bonuses.

    It reminded me of the Eddie Izzard skit: “You kill one person, they lock you up and throw away the key. You kill ten people, they lock you in a padded room and doctors spend time talking to you. You kill 100,000 people, you receive a state invite and have dinner with the Queen!”

    But, yeah – very similar to the nuke game. They take the profits, we take the losses – and those losses can be huge… as the Japanese are now finding out.

  7. While the PM is rejigging the income tax and social welfare system to accommodate carbon tax I think it is an opportunity to sort out fossil fuel subsidies. That can include fuel excise indexation, the diesel fuel rebate, FBT on company cars and coal infrastructure capital assistance. However some ‘subsidies’ such as low electricity prices to aluminium smelters go back to State rivalries to attract new jobs. Both the Commonwealth and State need to get their heads together on this eg if Big Al has to pay more for electricity maybe a Federal customs tariff is needed.

    I don’t buy the line that two wrongs make a right i.e. because fossil gets help then renewables should get it also. How about feed-in tariffs and 20% quotas for nuclear power? As Garnaut says just have CO2 limits in place and let the market sort it out. Nuclear critics complain of loan guarantees and damages indemnity but these have now been extended to commercial solar and carbon capture projects as well. Whatever kind of ‘help’ is on offer (additional to CO2 constraints) I suggest everybody gets the same deal. For starters nobody gets subsidies or quotas.

  8. Bluerock, I see the support by those like Kochs for nuclear as fairweather friends; any genuine program to phase out fossil fuels in favour of nuclear will see them turn on nuclear as strongly as they currently oppose a carbon price. Except they don’t have to as long as opposition to nuclear is strong enough that such a program is politically impossible. Currently both the fossil fuel and nuclear industries see environmentalism as their main enemy and an enemy of their enemy is their friend which is why I think we are seeing this alliance of convenience. Why pro-nuclear advocates appear to be strongly opposed to a carbon tax, which would favour it over fossil fuels seems to reflect the primarily anti-environmentalist ideology they share. So, for now “…they support nukes because they know they will impede deployment of renewables.” Fossil fuels are, in spite of what’s known about climate, booming both in production and in profitability; they can afford to give the nod to nuclear for as long as it remains a niche energy source and the groundwork is not laid for their phase out.
    Meanwhile renewables are making up ground and I sincerely hope they can step up and do they job.

  9. I think I wouldn’t mind have an Andrew Bolt type column and getting lots of money for talking nonsense…. Maybe I should audition?

    Now the Japanese nuclear power plant ‘accident’ scare is over, and the hysteria has died down to only fever pitch, lets reassess the situation. Seems, the nuclear power experts had things under control all along, despite the media beat-up about risks, the drama of a massive exclusion zone, thousands fleeing Tokyo and its surrounds, a few hot bits of metal, a bit of steam, and slightly raised levels here and there. The only casualties seem to be a few glow in the dark spinach plants and some drinking water with an extra bit of sparkle. If the locals have any qualms about drinking the water, they can use it to wash their clothes. I am sure they will come out extra bright.

  10. Ken Fabos :
    Bluerock, I see the support by those like Kochs for nuclear as fairweather friends; any genuine program to phase out fossil fuels in favour of nuclear will see them turn on nuclear…

    But that’s the point. They know full well that a “genuine program” to make nukes a reality would mean effectively socialising them – a la France. They know that could never happen in the US so they know that support for nukes is support for doing nothing except continuing to burn fossil fuels.

    Whereas, they know very well that renewables can be deployed very quickly and erode their market share.

    Meanwhile renewables are making up ground and I sincerely hope they can step up and do they job.

    To say they are “making up ground” really underplays the reality:

    * Renewables Global Status Report: Renewables accounted for 60% of new power capacity in Europe in 2009; China added 37 GW of renewable power capacity, more than any other country in the world; Globally, nearly 80 GW of renewable capacity was added, including 31 GW of hydro and 48 GW of non-hydro capacity; Solar PV additions reached a record high of 7 GW; 83+ countries have policies to promote renewable power. “China’s wind power capacity surpassed the country’s installed nuclear capacity in 2009, with just over 13.8 GW added to reach a total of 25.8 GW.”

    Renewables are being deployed at a massive rate. New nukes are barely keeping up with old ones going offline – and it’s really only China, India that are responsible for that because the governments have decided to bankroll them.

  11. Freelander :
    Seems, the nuclear power experts had things under control all along…

    Yeah, they intended for the containment buildings to explode, for radioactive material to vent in to the atmosphere and to write-off multi-billion power plants.

    The level of denial from the nuke fan club is always a thing of wonder….

  12. Bluerock, it’s the 24/7 on demand thing that’s the issue for solar and wind. During the past summer we saw weeks in a row when most of Eastern Australia was cloudy, including inland regions. I don’t recall it being that windy either. Thus solar would have struggled without input from much further west ie a very large redundancy, which, of course, makes it much more expensive. Large scale energy storage is effectively non-existent – hydro is geographically constrained and is there primarily to make efficient use of relatively smaller amounts of high elevation water storage for it’s own purposes, not provide large scale storage of energy. If any area of energy technology deserves serious R&D efforts it’s energy storage but we’ve seen the lions share go to fossil fuel companies for Carbon Capture and Storage. And it’s gotten us zero CCS capacity whilst depriving more promising and deserving programs like geothermal of funding.

    In Australia the carbon price Labor is trying to get through is effectively intended to give certainty to investment in Gas fired power plants in place of Coal, not investment in renewables ie give certainty to the same fossil fuel companies to produce coal seam gas whilst they keep digging up more coal to be exported. I’ve heard that ‘low emissions climate friendly gas plants’ line again and again recently. Yet Gas can only achieve the easy initial emissions targets like the pitiful 5% governments are struggling to get through. ie we will get a lot of investment, with government support, for a kind of fossil fuel infrastructure that can’t achieve longer term necessary emissions reductions and, once built, will not get ready support for early replacement or closure. Yet even this inadequate policy response is being vigorously opposed and will probably lead to it’s failure to get up. And Australia is abundantly endowed with renewable energy options! We are going to fail to make any inroads on this issue for the foreseeable future. Fossil fuel interests are winning, big time and I think they’ve still barely shown the extreme lengths they are prepared to go to to prevent the necessary decline of their profitability.

    In spite of this crisis in Japan I think nuclear will have a major role around the world in reducing emissions and the risks of nuclear accidents having to be weighed against the certainty of climate change. I don’t think it’s as readily expandable and safe as the proponents claim but nor do I think it’s risks are as extreme and unmanageable as it’s opponents want me to believe. And I don’t think renewables, as they currently exist and with our existing usage patterns, are able, yet, to reliably do the job required.

  13. @Ken Fabos

    Not convincing, Ken.

    The nuclear power plant in Fukushima 1 wasn’t even able to produce power for itself when a bit of water splashed at it. Someone forgot to put a windmill on top, it seems.

    Neither the elimination of profits of the nuclear industry’s competing energy providers, nor zero ghg emissions, nor polluting air, water, soil with radioactive elements are the policy objectives.

    In Australia and in many places in Europe, there is a ghg emission reduction policy objective and there is a renewable energy development policy. Makes sense to me.

  14. The most we can seriously expect from Japan is that they’ll try and do nuclear better in future and will maybe take older, vulnerable to tsunami coastal plants offline sooner. And I have no doubt this disaster will see older fossil fuel plants kept going longer. They may, if anti-nuclear sentiment is strong enough, build more fossil fuel plants. Australia will be pleased to sell them more coal or gas to do so. What we won’t see is either nuclear or fossil fuels replaced by renewables there any time soon, not to replace the lost nuclear capacity. Nor to provide a backbone of future capacity.
    Australia’s ghg reduction policy? The Coalition is going all out to kill it and there’s a strong likilihood they’ll succeed; the shock jocks are on their side, promoting Carter and Plimer and attacking the scientific basis for climate change. They will entrench climate science denial for another few electoral cycles; the apparent popularity of their current campaign will reduce any chance of a shift towards being rational about it.
    Right now the fossil fuel industry is winning hands down. And they’ve barely begun the fight for the future of their industry.

  15. @Ken Fabos

    Right now the fossil fuel industry is winning hands down. And they’ve barely begun the fight for the future of their industry.

    Its a serious worry. I hope that their pattern of opperations,exposed somewhat during the mineral rents tax debate, will waken people to their tactics and false claims of ruenation.

  16. The (only) argument in nuclear’s favour is that they are essentially zero carbon emissions during operation. There is some opinion that this is negated by the energy required to dig up and process the uranium as the ore is being more difficult to access and the quality is diminishing. The energy required during construction is also considerable and the energy required with the disposal of waste has yet to be defined (the onsite storage of nuclear waste was one of the problems at Fukushima)

    For the nuclear industry to establish confidence they will have to make available independent analysis of GHG emissions from all parts of the nuclear chain. Blanket statements about being clean and green wont cut the mustard, anymore.

  17. Rog, the ghg emission for all aspects of the energy supply chain is needed. Like with the whole climate issue, what the experts say depends very much on the experts you trust. With nuclear the scientific community itself appears to be far more divided than it is over the reality and seriousness of climate change.

    There are other issues than emissions and Energy Return On Investment, including reliability of supply, toxic waste disposal, decommissioning and, of course, costs. They apply across the board. Better cheaper batteries for example, could be a great boon but if they involve large quantities of long lived toxic materials spread across the world we could regret their widespread deployment.

    I say again that I am ambivalent about nuclear, that I think it’s problems are greater than vocal proponents admit but that they are not so unmanageable as it’s vocal opponents want me to believe. I would prefer that we not be forced to rely upon it, yet I have concerns that renewables still have significant issues (intermittency mostly) that are not easily resolved without a truly integrated program on a scale that looks politically unobtainable. That kind of large scale makeover of infrastructure will be strongly opposed by powerful interests and will actually get harder as the economic costs of climate change eat away at the economic discretion to take bold actions.

    I am not going to get drawn into protracted arguments about nuclear versus renewables but continue to believe that it’s a fight that primarily benefits fossil fuel interests, and that fossil fuel interests are, behind closed doors, happy to see it continue.

    I’ve expressed my opinions (and don’t think they are unreasonable even if sometimes speculative) and I do take note of the variety of views and arguments encountered here. I am deeply grateful for Pr Quiggin for providing the opportunity for people like myself to do so.

  18. @rog
    Rog says “For the nuclear industry to establish confidence they will have to make available independent analysis of GHG emissions from all parts of the nuclear chain.”

    Rog its clear they need to do more than that. The nuclear industry needs to stop lying about a) costs and b) risks. They dont have much credibility around here right now (around a lot of people right now – the entire industry has become suspect. Just one example in how many?????
    see below

  19. Nuclear power is the way to go. Who’s attacked North Korea since they’ve been a nuclear power?

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