The nuclear option: AP1000 or bust?

I’m going to relax my prohibition on discussion of nuclear energy, and offer a couple of points to start things off. I expect everything to go in circles as usual, but there’s plenty of room on the comments page, after all.

First, I have a piece coming out soon in the National Interest, arguing that 2011 marked a watershed in the development of energy sources to replace fossil fuels, with nuclear power finally ceasing to be a relevant option, and solar PV finally becoming a serious contender. I’ll add a link when it appears.

I’m sure not everyone will agree, so I’ll also offer a subsidiary claim which, if accepted, would at least simplify the debate. The claim is that the only nuclear technology with a serious chance of substantially reducing CO2 emissions before 2030 is the Westinghouse AP-1000.

To clarify my reasoning, I’ll begin with a definition. I’m going to define “substantial reduction” to require at least 100GW of operational installed power. If that exclusively displaced coal, it would save around 600-700 million tonnes of CO2 a year, a bit more than Australia’s current emissions, or about 2 per cent of the total. That seems like vey modest goal.

Next, I assert that achieving that outcome will require at least 20GW of capacity to be operational or very close by 2020. Otherwise there simply won’t be any chance to achieve the economies of scale needed to make nuclear economically viable, and the operational experience required to convince decision-makers to invest the necessary capital.

That in turn means that the decision to build the power stations has to be taken very soon. Even in China, where construction schedules are much faster than elsewhere (with implications for safety standards that have been seen in other sectors), a power plant takes a minimum of five years from the first concrete pour, and planning and site preparation takes two or three.

My final point is that any option that can’t make a real difference before 2030 should not play a major in current policy discussions. Obviously we need substantial reductions in emissions well before then, and that should be the primary focus.

The case in favor of the AP-1000 as the only feasible nuclear option is based on two simple facts.

(i) The US NRC has just approved it for the only four plants currently under construction in the US
(ii) China has adopted it as the main design for its program.

The argument that there are no other serious contenders remaining can be approached in two ways. First, by considering the options. These can be divided into three groups
(i) Currently existing competitors, such as CANDU, Areva and so on. None of these have any real chance of achieving the necessary scale, either now or in the future. The only possible competitor is the CPR-1000, a Chinese adaptation of a French design, which is at least a generation behind the AP-1000

(ii) Small modular reactors, still being touted despite having gone nowhere. The most promising version, the ‘pebble-bed’ design being developed in South Africa, was abandoned a couple of years ago. The only contender that has any serious chance of being operational by 2020 is a cut down version of the AP1000. Apart from that, there are a bunch of designs with no prospect of being built, even as demonstration projects, much before 2030.

(iii) Breeder reactors, like small modular reactors, only with a much longer track record of consistent failure. The only actually existing technology, sodium-cooled fast reactors, has been tried in quite a few countries, but has invariably failed. There are a handful of efforts still continuing, but none on a scale large enough to make a difference by 2030. Then there are a bunch of conceptual designs, with no firm plans for construction, even of prototypes.

So, if the AP-1000 is the only real contender, how good are its prospects? Not very good, in my view. The claim that modern designs will produce big cost reductions is so far, just a claim. Even a substantial deployment in China is unlikely to allay safety concerns, given China’s poor track record in this respect. So, a lot depends on the US projects being completed on time and on (or under) budget. Maybe this will happen and maybe not. Even if the AP1000 is as successful as possible, nuclear is still a backstop option at this point. Our primary hopes have to be placed on some combination of energy efficiency, renewables and lower energy consumption.

A final point about the Australian debate. Given the most optimistic possible projections, the AP1000 design might have achieved a couple of hundred reactor years of successful operation by the late 2020s. That would be a good time for Australia to start looking at the technology. The idea that nuclear power is a relevant option for Australia any time soon is just silly.

88 thoughts on “The nuclear option: AP1000 or bust?

  1. @Ikonoclast

    A blast from the past indeed and well out of date. The 2010 IEA “Red Book” reported that known uranium reserves increased by 15% from 2007-2009 alone. It is virtually certain that more exploration will produce substantially further reserves. The amount of money put into uranium exploration has been and continues to be tiny compared to fossil fuels.

    Every reference you provide is to work from known anti-nuclear individuals or groups. Their position is – no nuclear at any cost.

  2. Quokka, I compared the cost of point of use solar to the cost of nucear power, but you wrote. “Using arguments about the cost of point use solar as compared the cost of grid supplied nuclear is specious bordering on the fundamentally dishonest.” So am I automatically being dishonest for comparing the two? Does the simple act of comparing the two make me dishonest? Is this some kind of philosophy? Or is it theology? I simply do not understand how you reach that conclusion. This is so confusing I am having flashbacks to Sunday school.

    And Quokka, an overnight cost of 6 billion Euros for Flammanville is still more expensive than wind power. Or at least it is here in South Australia. You gotta remember to add in the operating cost. Those nuclear plants got bills to pay that apparently come to a marginal cost of something like 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

  3. Prof Q seems to imply that any nuclear power plant design that might be considered for Australia should have an operational record of a “couple of hundred” reactor years. This seems to me a criteria designed to reach the conclusion rather than one founded on world wide practice. Has this ever been applied anywhere?

    LWRs are now very well understood engineering and technology and such a requirement seems much too conservative. First of a kind projects are always at risk of cost over runs, but where are the grounds for believing that there is a risk of outright project failure in the sense of substantially not meeting design requirements? Is there is good reason in principle that for example the GE-Hitachi ESBWR be dismissed out of hand? All indications are that it should be as capable and safe as the AP1000 and the supplier certainly has a very long nuclear track record.

  4. @Ronald Brak

    Wind power is not free of operations and maintenance costs. Figures reported by the IEA have a wide range. For example from the US $0.008/kWh, from Germany $0.037/kWh and from China as $0.015-0.027/kWh. These are for on-shore wind.

    You have far from demonstrated your claim that wind in SA has a lower LCOE than the French EPR. The two European EPRs under construction are the most expensive NPPs in the world and and it is no secret that these projects could have been better executed. They should be seen as the something like the upper bound on new nuclear cost.

  5. Quokka, because of what you wrote earlier about me being spacious bordering on the thunderously dishonest for comparing the cost of point of use solar PV to nuclear generated electricty when I was comparing the cost of point of use solar PV to nuclear generated electricity, I now regard you as a crazy person and so I don’t really want to get involved in a discussion with you. I have a mirror for when I want to do things like that. But you can go ahead and demonstrate to me that nuclear is cheaper than wind in South Australia if you like. I’ll be reading even though I’ll try to avoid responding directly to you.

  6. “First of a kind projects are always at risk of cost over runs”

    In fact, there’s no risk about it in the case of nuclear First Of A Kind projects. They’ve always had cost overruns, sometimes huge ones. Even the Switkowski committee recommended against Australia going with a FOAK project.

    Remember, we woud be starting from scratch in terms of a regulatory framework, the professionals need to run the plant and provide the external regulation, interactions with the company building the plant and so on. To do this with a design that is itself untried is asking for trouble.

    The fact that you’re willing to advocate such an approach suggests you’ve let commitment to the cause overcome critical thinking.

  7. @quokka

    Did you bother to read the papers I linked or did you dismiss them out of hand because they don’t provide the answer you want to believe? They comprehensively debunk the IEA Redbook and its assessment methods. The papers I linked to are scientific papers and the methods used are scientific and empirically based in the precise sense of those terms. The IEA Redbook is a business-managerialist document not a scientific document. The method that the IEA Redbook follows is the standard business-managerialist method. I wonder Quokka if you understand the profound difference between a scientific assessment and a business-managerialist assessment?

    A thorough scientific assessment of this nature uses known and verified data and makes calculated extrapolations on a basis consistent with mathematical probability theory. A business-managerialist assessment (like the politicised assessment to which it is a close cousin) starts with the desired answer ball-park in mind. It then jigs and re-jigs the “data” and the pseudo-formulas it uses until it arrives at the desired answer. It might couch all this in a pseudo-scientific format but it is anything but a scientific document.

    This might sound like an exaggeration or parody of business-managerialist report methods but it is indeed an accurate and consistent picture of what goes on in about 99% of such reports. If you are not aware that this is the case, then there is a large gap in your real world education.

  8. @John Quiggin

    It is not true that FOAK nuclear projects have always had time and cost overruns. Sizewell B. the first and only light water NPP in the UK came in on time and on budget. It was and is radically different from the UKs existing fleet of Magnox and AGRs. But it was established technology in other countries. “Sizewell B (SXB) won the prestigious British Construction Industry Award in 1994 in the civil engineering category and also the Supreme Award selected from all the competition categories.”

    Source: Royal Academy of Engineering – Engineering the Future: Nuclear Lessons Learned

    This is a very interesting document to aid understanding of these issues, what has gone wrong and what has gone right in recent or current nuclear builds and how lessons can, should and will be learned.

    Just one counter example is sufficient to refute “common knowledge” such as “all FOAK nuclear projects overrun” and demonstrate the need for detailed knowledge and analysis.

    I’m not advocating that Australia (or anywhere else) should or shouldn’t do an FOAK nuclear project. Rather I suggest that should we come to such a point all credible proposals be evaluated on their merits. Among such criteria, I would imagine, would be the degree of financial responsibility to be assumed by the vendor for project overruns. I would also assume that more weight might be applied to this metric for proposals for designs without significant track record.

    Don’t know why this demonstrates abandonment of critical thinking.

  9. @John Quiggin

    Lets compare costs in IEA Projected Costs of Generating Electricity 2010 to Melb U via SMH

    Melb U:

    Wind: $130/MWh
    PV: $300/MWh

    IEA (median costs):

    Wind (Nth America): $62 – 92/MWh at 5% and 10% discount rates respectively
    Wind (Europe): $110-150/MWh
    Wind (Asia Pac): $75-115/MWh

    PV (US): $215-333/MWh

    I don’t see anything in the SMH report to suggest that IEA has it fundamentally wrong. There actually seems to be reasonable agreement.

  10. “But it was established technology in other countries.”

    My point exactly. Australia, as a beginner should confine itself to technology that is already established overseas, rather than going for a world FOAK. If you want to give a relevant counterexample, point to a world FOAK nuclear plant, in a country with no previous nuclear experience, that came in under budget and worked as well or better than projected.

  11. @Ikonoclast

    If you are referring to the Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith paper that purports to show a negative EROEI for uranium extraction from seawater, then look elsewhere. This paper relies on studies from the 1970s that assume pumping of huge amounts of sea water. Hardly surprising that there would be large energy expenditure! The Japanese experiment referenced above relies only on natural water flow from currents and tides. The laws of physics remain intact, and extraction of uranium from seawater remains a possibility even for a once through fuel cycle. The MIT report came to this conclusion – needs more study but certainly not ruled out.

    I take it that we can assume that the EROEI argument against uranium from seawater is debunked and we do not have to engage in this whack-a-mole game again sometime in the future?

  12. The choice of the Right in fossil fuel rich and dependent nations like the US and Australia to deny science based reality stole the opportunity 2 decades ago for nuclear to be the dominant solution for bringing down emissions. Most pro-nukers still think it’s the fault of Greenies – because that’s who the Right continue to try and blame in order to divert attention from their own unwillingness to back nuclear. Even the truth about climate change was never enough to bring the Right to dump fossil fuels for nuclear. In the process they allowed solar a big opportunity to advance, sure in the knowledge that solar would never be able to rise to the challenge whilst nuclear was the real threat.

    The Right should get credit for their key role in giving renewables the big break they needed!

    In places like the USA and Australia nuclear will get no serious political backing until and unless climate denial collapses; the same lot that stabbed nuclear in the back will be knocking on nuclear’s door like there was never a bad moment between them. The pro-nukers, so desperate for any kind of support and blind to just how deep a betrayal climate denial was for nuclear, will welcome the renewed attention and still think it was those greenies that stole their big opportunity.

    Meanwhile so many methods of doing solar work well enough that it hasn’t even reached the point of a clear and obvious ‘best’ technology and that well of innovation is far from dry; they can hopefully take advantage of the start that the combination of Right abandoning nuclear and Left backing renewables has given it.

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