A few more observations on nuclear power

I thought I should respond to the latest suggestions from Department of Industry and others that nuclear power is an option worth considering for Australia. While I’m at it, I’ll add some updates on global developments.

* The most striking feature of recent Australian discussion, beginning with the Australian Energy Technology Assessment from 2011 is the claim that “small modular reactors” represent an appealing option for Australia. AETA listed these as being one of the cheapest options for 2020. with an estimated levelised cost of between $75 and $125/MWh. That’s both ambitious and remarkably precise for a technology that does not yet exist, even in prototype form. Leaving aside niche technologies like the Russian proposal to adapt nuclear sub reactors as floating platforms, the only serious contender in this field is the US, where the Department of Energy has provided grants for the development of two pilot plants. The target date (almost certainly over-optimistic) for these to begin operation is 2022. To get any idea of economic feasibility, it would be necessary both to undertake commercial deployment (in the US, obviously) and to to accumulate some years of operating experience. To get this done by 2030, or even 2035 would be an ambitious goal, to put it mildly. Again assuming everything goes well, Australia might be in a position to undertake deployment of SMRs by, say, 2040. But obviously, if we are going to reduce emissions on anything like the scale we need (80 per cent by 2050), we need to phase out most fossil fuel electricity well before that. Obviously, all these points apply in spades to proposals that exist only as designs, with no active proposals even for prototype development, such as the Integral Fusion Reactor. As I’ve argued before, to the extent that nuclear power makes any contribution to reducing CO2 emissions on a relevant time scale, it will have to be with current technology, most likely the AP1000.

* Talking of the AP1000, the builders four plants under construction at two sites in the US have just announced another 6 months delay, pushing the operations date out to 2017 or 2018 (release from FoE, but links to originals)

* Most interesting of all are projections released by the International Atomic Energy Agency last year for the period to 2050. Currently nuclear power accounts for around 11 per cent of global electricity. The IAEA “low’ projection has that falling to 10 per cent by 2030 and 5 per cent by 2050. The “high” projection, which includes steady growth in both North America and Western Europe as well as spectacular growth in Asia, has the share remaining roughly stable. So, even on the most optimistic projections of the world’s leading nuclear agency, nuclear power won’t play any significant role in decarbonising the electricity sector, let alone the economy as a whole.

I’ve come to the conclusion that nuclear power advocates, like climate delusionists (virtually all climate delusionists are nuclear fans, though not vice versa) are essentially immune to empirical evidence. So, I’d prefer no comments from our usual advocates (hermit, Will B etc) unless they have something genuinely new to say.

300 thoughts on “A few more observations on nuclear power

  1. Brent, I’ll also mention that in 2012 ratepayers paid the Columbia nuclear Generating Station $418 million for electricity that cost $218 million at market rates. So it appears that even now, 30 years after it starte operating, your local nuclear plant is still costing you money.

  2. @Will Boisvert

    Both you and Hermit want to discount hydro. Why is that? Hydro is renewable within current definitions. But you want to discount it because hydro is a big part of the reason that renewables outrank nuclear energy already.

    The very fact that you imagine that uranium can be separated from seawater and used to produce a positive energy return tells me you don’t understand the exreme diluteness of uranium in seawater and the whole issue of the energy cost in recovering it. The issue is EROEI (energy return on energy input).

    According to IEA scenarios, the next peak of uranium from Reasonably Assured Resources is about 2015. The real peak was 1980. No projected scenario shows more production than occurred in 1980. Real peak uranium was in 1980! Imagine that! The fall-off after that was dealt with by using the fuel from decommisioned nuclear weapon cores. A new ramping up of mining will give the secondary 2015 peak which will still be lower than the 1980 peak.

    Thorium is a dangerous pipe-dream. Thorium breeders have not even got off the speculative drawing board. Breeder reactors themselves are bedevilled with problems.

    The International Panel on Fissile Materials (who I find far more credible than pro-nuclear bloggers lacking basic scientific literacy and technical knowledge), said “After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries”. In Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, breeder reactor development programs have been abandoned.

  3. Footnote:

    Even the Gen IV International Forum dedicated to developing Gen IV reactors says; “Depending on their respective degrees of technical maturity, the Generation IV systems are expected to become available for commercial introduction around 2030-2040.”

    This is a not a timeframe that will save us quite frankly. By these dates more than +2 C rise in global average temperatures will be locked into the climate system unless we have successfully ramped up renewables massively by those dates and also cut back greatly on fossil fuels.

    Our chances are slim. Renewables give us some chances. Nuclear = Assured Disaster.

  4. @ Ikonoclast I think we’re screwed with or without nuclear, an idea some won’t accept. It’s just that nuclear could steer us towards the least-worse path. Wind and solar won’t keep industry running 24/7 nor make the materials to replace themselves. Since I’m involved in setting up microhydro I can tell you there’s only limited room to expand in Australia.

    On Gen IV nuclear it seems that Russia and China will take up the running. The US seems to have convinced itself that fracked gas will last forever. The GE-Hitachi Prism reactor is on the shortlist of two to burn up the UK’s plutonium stockpile, enough for 500 years they reckon. If it gets the nod things could move faster. Thorium an element of which we have plenty in Oz can also be used in some Gen III nuclear plant. We’ve got the most uranium so we should be OK til mid century.

    The big picture is 7 bn of us are consuming an unevenly distributed 15 terawatts of power, directly or indirectly over 2kw per person. Of that say 12 Tw comes from burning fossil carbon. By 2050 we’ll want say an efficient and frugal 25 Tw for 9 bn people, but say 22 Tw of that from low carbon. There’s little sign we’re on that path or even that the people in charge grasp the simple arithmetic.

  5. @Totaram

    I live in Melbourne and pay 39.16c/kwh for peak (7am to 11pm). Anyone who has solar will be offered peak/off-peak.

    To get any benefit from these higher prices (by generating it yourself), you first have to give up a lower peak price that anyone in Melbourne can get. And by peak price I mean the price you can get during peak times, not the price you would have to agree too if you wanted a differing peak time/off peak time pricing regime. I use the terminology “peak” price because that is what they call it on my electricity bill, even though it’s the same all day.

    So to get the possible benefit from a higher “peak” price, I first need to put myself at a disadvantage by shifting to time-of-day dependent pricing. What I’m doing is comparing what I’m getting now with what I would get with a battery. I’m not comparing what I would get if I put myself at a disadvantage compared with using a battery. That’s because switching to time-of-day dependent pricing would not be a rational choice for me and probably not rational for most people in Melbourne either.

    In any case the most optimistic figures I’ve seen, using the price of cheap Li-ion batteries and the performance of the best Li-ion batteries, yields a battery cost of at least 50c/kWh delivered.

  6. @Hermit

    Since I’m involved in setting up microhydro I can tell you there’s only limited room to expand in Australia.

    Even though there’s a limited amount of energy that can originate from hydro in Australia, its limit for storage purposes is only limited by cost. Cost is the issue with hydro storage because you’ve basically got to set up two generating systems instead of one for the same consumed energy AND you have to set up two transmission systems instead of one (generator to hydro storage + hydro storage to load) for that same energy.

  7. @Hermit

    South Australia could build Solar Convection Towers which make power 24/7. Keep your wind gens and solar panels on-line and add Solar Convection Towers and maybe some Solar Concentrating with Molten Heat Storage. South Australia would not need any other stationary power.

  8. @Chris O’Neill

    In theory yes, but as always, it depends on the system. A seaboard pumped storage system that used wave energy or marine or wind turbines to force seawater into a pump and up a feeder pipe to a reservoir would not be an energy generating system but rather a harvester of kinetic energy. The generator would be the hydro-system alone. If this were placed near a grid connection point at the coast, then the connection costs would be modest.

    The cost of building such a system without favourable land contours and geomorphology would be considerable. You’d probably want at least 100 metres of head pressure and scope to store very significant amounts of seawater — implying very strong bedrock underneath. There wouldn’t be many locations ticking all of these boxes and I’d guess many of the locals in any place that might fit would think it an ugly monstrosity.

  9. @Chris O’Neill
    I tried to ask you again about taking into service charges into account, but had security troubles posting – don’t know if this will go through. I calculate that as a low user, when you take the service charge into account, I’m paying over 80c per kWh most of the year (av use about 2 kWh per day for nine months of year, usage charge 24c per kWh, service charge $1.15 a day).

    There’s a big incentive for low users to go off the grid at that rate.

  10. Will Boisvert

    the polities with the highest proportions of nuclear generation include France, Sweden, Switzerland and Ontario, all of them very open liberal democracies. Your argument that nuclear power fosters an over-weening security state that impinges on freedom is clearly without foundation.

    I’d be stunned if the management of these facilities and their hazmat handling protocols didn’t fall under their national security laws however liberal they happen to be. Certainly in this country, which in these matters, tends to ape the US, a robust and brutal national security regime would be part of the package. Right now, our governments are devising swingeing laws to restrain those protesting destruction of native forests, involved with motorcycle clubs, and are on a declared “war footing” over irregular maritime arrivals and asserting a right to keep it all hush hush.

    I don’t understand your argument that deploying nuclear plants would have to wait for the slow retirement of existing fossil plants, or else require compensating their owners. I don’t think we do need to do that, but in any case why wouldn’t that principle also apply to replacing fossil plants with renewable sources?

    Because each new renewable project merely nibbles at the market currently served by FHC plants. However, if you started peeling off 25GW IN 3-5 GW chunks the only way that loan guarantees for a project that would conservatively take seven years before the first watt-minute of sent out power hit the grid would be if there were a guaranteed market share. If the state declined to become involved the project wouldn’t get finance.

    State finance would be the obvious way to go, but again, the state would want to be sure it wasn’t investing in a white elephant. Absent a serious carbon price, coal is cheaper than nuclear.

    If the state ordered the shutdown, then in practice, if not in theory, compensation would be payable.

    In NSW coal assets continue to be owned by the state (from memory this applies in SA and WA as well) and if the states wanted to flog these off for a reasonable price there would probably have to be a deal on allowing them to operate for 15+ years at least probably with concessional coal thrown in.

    Your belief that renewables can accomplish a faster decarbonization than nuclear is also unfounded.

    The cost for new wind and solar these days is there with coal and gas. It will likely continue to trend lower. It’s already unlikely that any new coal plants will be built in Australia because the high priced peak energy is being increasingly supplied by solar and wind which is prejudicing the viability of coal. The lead times for new wind and solar are a fraction of those for nuclear too and these come in on time and on budget. Renewables allow a far smoother phased conversion than nuclear.

    This in turn allows those investing in coal assets to start jumping ship just as the assets start to near the end of their useful commercial life, so compensation is not needed.

  11. Chris, sorry again for making a mistake and then making a mistake when I told you about my mistake. I was was prideful when I thought I was correct and slothful when I didn’t check my result. If father O’Flannery is correct I’ve significantly increased my chance of strange red men poking me with forks. I thought your objections were only to do with the values I used. I didn’t realize that my calculation was all messed up.

    Anyway, here is where I got the information on the performance of the Sunny Boy SMA:


    I don’t actually know what electric car makers pay per kilowatt-hour for batteries. There appears to be a fair range of opinion on this. I also don’t know how rapidly batteries for electric cars are decreasing in price. One estimate I read was 10-15% a year. I have no idea if that is true, but if the price decrease is 10% a year then that is extremely rapid. It would only take about 7 years for the price to halve. So if we take the figure you gave of $600 a kilowatt-hour as the current price then we might be looking at $300 a kilowatt-hour by 2020. I’m not saying this will happen but I don’t think it is a crazy suggestion because we know that right now it costs less than that to mass produce batteries for laptops and other applications. And I’m certain that battery durability will also increase over that time.

    The Sunny Boy SMA will apparently undergo over 4,000 cycles and that’s an awful lot for lithium batteries. However, their durability has improved a lot. We can see this from eight year/160,000 km warranties for electric car battery packs. (Although this doesn’t mean the battery pack is undergoing a full cycle each day.) So either the SMA batteries are amazing, which I guess might be possible though you’d think they’d have made more noise about it, or perhaps they’ve just oversized them a little so the system will keep functioning within spec for ten years. After all, unlike for some applications, it can still do useful work even if the battery is quite degraded and also I have no idea how performance at year one would compare to year ten. Oversizing will of course increase their cost, but provided they continue to decrease in price this will only delay the point at which home energy storage becomes profitable.

    I am confident that provided retail electricity prices remain high and feed in tariffs remain low that home energy storage will become popular in Australia. I don’t know when this will happen and it may be based on a different battery chemistry than lithium, but I don’t think it will take very long and it may take off in rural areas first where grid electricity prices can be extremely high and may people are already familiar with energy storage.

  12. @ Ronald Brak,

    In case you missed it (it was held in moderation for a while because of all the web links), my reply to your comment on my data on Chinese wind, solar and nuclear prices is on page 5, #43. You misunderstood the article you cited; Chinese wind and solar prices are indeed in the $1500-1700 per kilowatt range that I reported.

  13. @ Fran Barlow,

    Fran, most countries have militaries, national police forces, secrecy and espionage laws, anti-terrorism paramilitary units, restricted no-go sites, all the panoply of a security apparatus. There is simply no connection between the extent and virulence of the security apparatus and respect for civil liberties in a country and the presence of nuclear power stations. By your own account Australia is sprouting draconian security laws with nary a nuke in sight. Your argument that if nuclear, then Orwellian police state–and say goodbye to your motorcycle clubs!–is absurd and borders on demagoguery.

    Again, your argument that incursions of nuclear are more disruptive than renewables to fossil fuel assets doesn’t make any sense. It’s wrong on the facts: All large-scale renewable programs involve massive state subsidy and financing along with state-guaranteed market shares for renewables that are explicitly meant to crowd out existing fossil-fueled plants. Even in the US, most states have renewable portfolio standards that legally require utilities to source large portions of their electricity from renewables. In Germany, after decades and colossal government subsidies and mandates, renewables are finally starting to put pressure on gas generators (though coal is thriving). The result is that the government is preparing to subsidize fossil generators through capacity markets so as to keep them in business for the weeks on end when wind and solar collapse entirely during the dead of winter.

    Your reasoning is also incoherent. You claim that renewables offer a faster and “smoother” transition to low-carbon energy (which is also wrong on the facts, as I’ve noted upthread.) But then you contradict yourself by arguing that fossil generators are content with renewables “nibbling” around their edges but dread massive, quick displacement by nuclear. Isn’t that a good reason to support nuclear–especially because nuclear won’t require lingering “backup” from fossil fuels the way wind and solar do? Don’t you want fossil generators to be massively and quickly displaced? Isn’t that the whole point?

  14. Don’t want to spoil any preconceptions, but I am a Scientist, and so I accept the reality of climate change and the desirability of nuclear power, because in both cases the Physics and the numbers are there, and coincidentally one is the solution (and the only practical one) for the other.

  15. Will Boisvert, thank you for your reply. You wrote that wind costs $1,500-$1,700 a kilowatt and provided a link which supports that. I find this odd because right now in South Australia we are constructing wind power for $1,625 a kilowatt and it seems bizarre to me that China would not have an advantage over us. Australia has no domestic wind turbine industry and imports every turbine and even most of the pylons and we also have some of the highest labour costs in the world. I was under the impression that any engineering we can do, they can do cheaper, they can do any engineering cheaper than us. I do know that in the past it has been difficult to estimate how much Chinese projects cost in other countries’ currencies and perhaps this is still the case. So if wind does cost around $1,600 a kilowatt in China then it seems to me that they must be doing something wrong, or several things wrong, and that would mean they have the option of not doing them.

    But even at $1,600 a kilowatt wind power still appears cheaper than nuclear power in China. Building a nuclear power plant is a multi year project even in China which significantly increases the cost compared to the months it takes to build a wind farm. How much cheaper it is hard to tell given China’s low interest rates and rationing of capital via other means, but there certainly seems to be a strong preference for electricity sooner rather than later. And then there is the real risk that a nuclear plant will suffer problems and be forced to shut down before its expected lifespan is over. We know from history this risk is real and one that increases with new designs. This is a bigger problem for nuclear than for wind due to due to the high cost of decommissioning nuclear. And a nuclear plant that does operate for 60 years will spend most of its life in a developed country and is likely to have developed country expenses. Its difficult to tell, but nuclear and $1,600 wind might be within a cent of each other on cost per kilowatt-hour. And then the cost of insurance will make wind cheaper than nuclear.

    Now I know from comments you made on another thread, Will, that you may think that nothing needs to be done in the face of a large scale nuclear disaster such as at Fukushima, but that’s not the opinion of the Chinese government. In fact, I think they’d probably be quite aware of how the official response to the Chernobyl disaster discredited the government of the Soviet Union and contributed to its downfall. They are certainly not oblivious to the danger as plans to build reactors in densely populated areas were cancelled after Fukushima. After a disaster there will be a response as in any developed country consisting of evacuation and decontamination. China may be able to deal with this more cheaply than a developed nation now, but it won’t be long before China will become a developed nation. So even with modern nuclear reactors, the cost of insurance will still be considerable.

    If wind is $1,600 a kilowatt in China then it would appear to have a lot of room to come down in price. The cost of wind power has decreased rapidly and I’m sure it will continue to do so. How long this trend will continue I don’t know, but I am certain that wind power will become considerably cheaper in the time it would take to build a Chinese nuclear plant from start to finish.

    With regard to solar, it doesn’t matter what it costs to install at the moment, we know that China definitely has the capacity to install it at a lower cost than Germany and at German prices it will be quite competitive. China has less roof space per person than many other countries, but there is still plenty of room for residential and business solar to compete with other forms of generation.

    And Will, note that I did not claim that the capacity factor of Chinese solar was 20-25%. I instead pointed out that there are areas in China where fixed PV operates at over 25% capacity and that if the solar capacity installed last year operated at 20% of capacity it would produce as many kilowatt-hours as 2.7 one gigawatt nuclear plants. I don’t know what the average capacity factor of the solar PV installed last year was, I only know that a lot of it was utility scale solar in the sunny western and south western areas of the country.

    Also, if you are going to say things like, nuclear plants will spend decades producing electricity at much lower rates after their capital costs are paid off, I will point out that nuclear power has a considerable marginal cost. One that is much higher than Australian coal while the marginal cost of wind and solar are close to zero. So once the capital costs of wind and solar are paid off they will produce electricity at a much lower rate than nuclear. Next to nothing, in fact.

    I hope that China can build nuclear plants very cheaply and very safely, but I doubt Chinese nuclear will be able to compete with other low emission generating capacity, particularly given how rapidly wind and solar power have been coming down in price.

  16. Stephen Kennedy, if the numbers are there for nuclear economically then why will electricity from the Hinkely C nuclear plant cost a minimum of 15 cents a kilowatt-hour which is great deal more than Australian wind? Also, wouldn’t the numbers for solar be even better seeing that rooftop solar outcompetes any utility scale generation in Australia?

  17. Watching one of the TV docos on ‘filthy cities’ it occurred to me how much the despised baseload power keeps those rivers of sewage flowing. Many of the citizenry may not care two hoots about heavy industry but I’m pretty sure they don’t want blocked drains.

    To those hung up on the cost of future sunny daytime solar vs dispatchable power I suggest a thought experiment… how much solar could we rely on if it was free? That’s a yes assumption with a no assumption being that we cannot store enough solar energy for when it is not sunny daytime.

  18. Hermit, if solar power was free we would meet our entire daytime demand with it. We’d set up enough capacity to meet demand during cloudy conditions and enough east and west facing panels so all our electricity would be solar from sunup till sundown. ‘Cause it would be free. We could even run a high capacity HVDC line between eastern and Western Australia and run the eastern states off solar into the evening and Western Australia before their sunrise. So maybe 75% or more of our electricity would come from solar given current pricing arrangements, but of course a lot of industry and water pumping and so on would switch to daytime consumption of electricity to take advantage of lower prices, so over 80% I suppose.

    You’ve suggested this scenario before. Where you still unclear on what would probably happen?

  19. @Hermit

    LOL! You NEVER listen m8!

    1. Molten salt energy storage combined with solar concentrating thermal can produce power 24/7. It is working now in Spain.

    2. Solar convection (updraft) towers produce power 24/7 and produce even MORE power at night. Why? They rely on the temperature differential between the surface and the top of the tower and this temperature differential typically INCREASES at night.

    3. Wide distribution of solar, wind, wave and hydro including pumped hydro energy storage can smooth fluctuations and help ensure power 24/7 along with the above technology in points 1 and 2.

    Replacing our stationary power capacity (electricity generation) with 100% renewable is fully technically and economically feasible at the Australian level. 24/7 power availability is easily achieveable.

    You really need to read up on developments. Your knowledge and assumptions in this area are at badly out of date.

    Having said the above, replacing stationary energy is not our real big problem. Replacing oil and gas for transport is a much tougher problem as will be coping with climate change and general limits to growth.

  20. @Ikonoclast
    You don’t read my posts. At #49 I said BREE estimated that solar thermal would be in the range $295 to $402 per Mwh. Uncarbontaxed brown coal is something like $40. From memory BREE covered parabolic trough, dishes and mirror towers with and without thermal storage but not updraft towers. My understanding is the biggest updraft tower in Spain is just a mockup not actually working. At least granite geothermal has a small pilot plant in the middle of the outback but so far no customers within a few hundred km.

    I have read most of the all-renewables proposals like ZCA. It’s just that I don’t think running power stations on hay bales instead of coal is practical for Australia or properly costed. Perhaps you should read the detailed critiques e.g. by Ted Trainer. I agree that transport energy or peak oil is the sleeper that will drag the economy down taking coal with it due to forced inactivity.

  21. @Ikonoclast
    Again see Ted Trainer. The problem is continent wide cloud cover and low sun angle for fixed axis PV. On the June long weekend they have the blessing of the snows at Thredbo since a major westerly normally sweeps in around that time. They could use candles for warmth.

  22. @ Ronald Brak p. 6 #17, on costs of nuclear, wind and solar in China:

    1. Okay, we’ve established (per p. 5 #43) that Chinese wind and solar capital costs are $1500-1700 per kilowatt according to published sources, not the $670 per kw you wrongly claimed upthread. (Note that the $2500-3500 per kw cost of nuclear that I cited includes interest accrued during construction.) Nuclear is four to six times as productive as wind and solar, so capital expenses, the main cost components for these sources, are much lower for nuclear.

    You still insist that wind is cheaper than nuclear anyway, despite my citations showing that feed-in-tariffs for Chinese nuclear are about 20 percent lower than wind FITs, and half of solar FITs. Your claims just don’t make any sense, and they’re contradicted by the facts.

    2. You contend that “it doesn’t matter what [Chinese solar] costs to install at the moment” [!] because at German prices it will be competitive. But I think Chinese solar is already as cheap as German solar. The most recent data I could find for German utility-scale solar puts it at about 1200 euros per kilowatt, which at today’s exchange rate is about $1644 per kilowatt. (Germany has stopped building utility-scale solar because FITs have fallen too low for them to be profitable.) Even at $1000 per kw, Chinese solar would still have capital costs going on twice those of nuclear. And of course the Chinese plan to reduce nuclear costs by 20 percent and more.

    I provided three citations showing Chinese solar capacity factors to be in the 12-15 percent range.You still didn’t provide any evidence that most solar, much solar or any solar in China gets 20-25 percent capacity factors.

    3. Nuclear plants do not have higher “marginal costs” than coal. You’re confusing “marginal costs” with “operating costs.” Nuclear has essentially zero marginal costs, just like wind and solar, because its operating costs are all overhead: a nuke saves no money by reducing reactor output and spends no money ramping back up. Coal plants have higher marginal costs because for every extra kilowatt-hour generated they must buy extra coal.

    And no, nuclear does not have higher operating costs than coal. According to the US Energy Information Agency, in 2012 total operating expenses for US nuclear plants were 2.5 cents per kwh compared to 3.2 cents per kwh for coal plants, so nuclear was 20 percent cheaper than coal. Wind and solar may have lower operating costs or not, depending on the estimate. The US Dept. of Energy’s 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report puts wind’s operating costs at 1 cent per kwh. But Britain’s Dept. of Energy and Climate Change in its 2013 Electricity Generating Costs forecast expects onshore wind to have total operating costs of 23 pounds per MWh, offshore wind 32-36 and PV 24 pounds per MWh, compared to new nuclear’s 21 pounds per MWh, which implies that nuclear operating costs will be slightly lower than renewables costs. Anyway, because nukes last a lot longer than wind and solar generators, 60 years vs. 20-30 years, they will spend more time in the low-cost regime after the mortgage is paid off. And of course, we haven’t even gotten to the large extra costs of transmission and back-up that wind and solar impose on the grid.

    Again, Ronald, it’s pretty clear that Chinese nuclear is cheaper than wind and solar. I can’t understand why you keep denying this in the face of conclusive evidence.

  23. Will, maybe you should go back and read through what I wrote again, but more slowly this time. Then after that if there are still things you don’t understand you can write some questions.

  24. US EIA data does not support Hermit and Will.


    Wind and hydro already knock coal and nuclear on the head cost-wise. Solar PV aint that far behind and improving all the time. Off-shore wind is unsurprisingly expensive. Solar thermal admittedly looks a bit ugly. Solar convection isn’t even costed but would probably look ugly if costed now. I am sure coal and nuclear negative externality costs are not included in the US EIA data. If it were they would look far uglier than any renewable tech.

    Further technical advances will likely make ALL renewables look a lot better cost wise. Wind and hydro are already significantly better. ALL renewables are already a lot safer for the environment than coal or nuclear.

    The bottom line is how ever well we get renewables to work that is as good as the future will be. Coal and nuclear wreck our future. Coal by global warming, nuclear by making whole regions radioctive like Chernobyl and Fukushima following the inevitable and numerous nuclear accidents if we seriously scale up that technology. Nuclear fuel runs out too. Peak uranium is past. Gen IV reactors won’t be ready before 2040 if ever (far too late to save the planet).

  25. @ Ikonoclast,

    Think a little harder about those EIA stats you cited, particularly EIA’s warning that LCOEs for intermittent wind and solar generators are “not directly comparable” to those of dispatchable generators like coal and nuclear.

    The stats forecast that the LCOE of new nuclear in the US at $108.4 per MWh will be considerably cheaper than solar PV ($144.3/MWh), solar thermal ($261.5/MWh) and offshore wind ($221.5/MWh). They say it will be more expensive than hydro and geothermal, which is uncontroversial—I’m all for hydro and geo, as I noted upthread. The EIA also forecasts costs of wind, at $86.6/MWh to be lower than nuclear costs.

    But EIA assumptions on renewables are optimistic, particularly on capacity factors. EIA assumes an average capacity factor of 34 % for wind, for example. (The actual US CF was 32.2 percent in 2012, 5 percent lower.) In most parts of the country wind capacity factors are considerably lower. The EIA stats include regional variation in CFs, but their lowest modeled regional CF is 30 percent, way too high. 2012 CFs for California was 27 %, Washington 28.5 % and Oregon 26 %. Pennsylvania had 25.1 %, New York 23.6 % and Tenessee 18.7 %. If you assume California’s 27 percent CF, onshore wind costs rise to $109.5/MWh, slightly above average nuclear. Tenessee’s 18.7 % CF implies wind costs of $157.54/MWh, much higher than high-case nuclear LCOE’s of $115.3/MWh.

    What this means is that there are many places in the US where nuclear will be cheaper than onshore wind. In China, the point of contention, average onshore wind CFs are 22 %, and in Germany about 17 %, so wind is more expensive than nuclear in those places if you generalize from the EIA data. Wind LCOEs may conceivably be cheaper in places with great resources like the US Great Plains and Australia, but why impose that model on regions where poor resources make it uneconomical?

    EIA’s guesstimate of solar PV CF at 25 % is also way too high, appropriate only for the high desert, and doubtful even there. It’s much lower in most states of the union. In China it’s 14-15 %, in Germany about 10 %. So EIA’s estimate of solar PV LCOEs, already considerably higher than nuclear’s, are unrealistically low and will be much higher still almost everywhere in the world.

    All EIA’s CF factors are for low penetrations of renewables. As penetrations rise, poorer wind and solar sites will be developed and curtailment will start to erode wind and solar production, so wind and solar CFs will fall considerably and LCOEs rise.

    EIA also doesn’t count the extra system costs of intermittent wind and solar. Their transmission investment costs are only for the hook-up to the grid (you can tell because they vary as the simple inverse of the capacity factor.) They do not count the costs of extra long-distance high-voltage transmission, which will be much greater with intermittents than with nuclear that plugs right into existing well-developed grids. EIA also doesn’t count the cost of backing up wind and solar when they collapse over huge geographical areas for days on end; extra dispatchable capacity equal to the entire effective generating capacity of the intermittents must be maintained, at high cost and with ongoing massive carbon emissions.

    –“All renewables are already a lot safer for the environment than coal or nuclear”
    False, Ike. Every large hydro dams drowns hundreds of square miles. Biomass is much worse. Renewables plans envision harvesting millions of square miles of forest and farmland for wood and crops to burn. That will ravage wildlife habitat and crowd out farming, thus driving up food prices and imposing more hunger, disease and death in the developing world. Biomass, which is a pillar of renewables plans, is an environmental catastrophe—much worse for people and the planet than nuclear could ever be.

  26. –Peak uranium, Ikonoclast? Green alarmists have been promising us for many decades that uranium was about to run out. But their promises never came true; in fact, uranium reserves have only gotten more abundant.

    Reserves are calculated by what’s profitable to mine; when the price of uranium climbs, mining and prospecting get more profitable and reserves increase. At a price of $260 per kg, uranium reserves would be about about 7 million tons, up 30 percent from 5 years ago. (Pretty pricey, but uranium is such a small component of nuclear costs that it would have a negligible effect on costs.) And there are undoubtedly huge undiscovered deposits in the regions of the earth—seafloor deposits, deep deposits—that have never been prospected because uranium is cheap. More billions of tons are available from seawater extraction, now estimated to cost about $2-300 per kg.

    There’s not much prospecting these days because uranium is dirt cheap. The current spot price is about $36 per kg—that’s the same as it was back in 1980, in nominal dollars; in constant dollars it’s drastically cheaper than it was 35 years ago.

    So the Green promises about peak uranium just can’t be trusted. Uranium is getting cheaper and reserves are increasing all the time.

  27. I have a question some of the nuclear buffs on this thread may be able to help me with: Why haven’t the CANDU-style heavy water reactors entered into more widespread use? They seem (to my layman’s mind) to offer some distinct advantages over light water reactor designs – particularly the ability to utilise non-enriched uranium. So what holds them back in comparison to light water designs? Is it economics, or some engineering drawback?

  28. Tim Macknay :
    I have a question some of the nuclear buffs on this thread may be able to help me with: Why haven’t the CANDU-style heavy water reactors entered into more widespread use? They seem (to my layman’s mind) to offer some distinct advantages over light water reactor designs – particularly the ability to utilise non-enriched uranium. So what holds them back in comparison to light water designs? Is it economics, or some engineering drawback?

    I have looked into this. Because that design has a decades long track record of proven success, it struck me that any problems are likely to be political (including any difficulty in getting the Canadians to transfer their hard won expertise to others they fear might use it to proliferate). There is one other possibility: the heavy water presents a sizeable capital cost, and would present a sizeable delay in sourcing it locally if it could not readily be bought (however, it also struck me that it may be possible to vary the design to use an alternative moderator at a small price in efficiency, e.g. supercritical carbon dioxide laced with carbon monoxide or carbon monoxide fluidised sugar charcoal powder, perhaps transitionally before switching to a heavy water moderator – but those lead the way to yet another approach, homogeneous reactors).

    CANDU reactors do offer another advantage, which hasn’t yet been tried out on a production scale: by cutting the uranium they use with thorium, particularly if the design is an enriched uranium variant, enough breeding occurs to extend the fuel’s life (but, as others have pointed out, uranium supplies aren’t currently a serious constraint; it would really only help the variants that are optimised for enriched uranium, as the supply of that is a constraint).

  29. Heavy water CANDUs can not only use thorium and low enriched uranium but I understand they load follow better as well ie don’t mind operating on half throttle then dialling up when needed. For some reason even the Canadians sometimes prefer other reactors I suspect because of high capex. Outside China an AP 1000 light water reactor will cost perhaps $5 a watt but the CANDU I think is nearer $10 including heavy water procurement. An outstanding achievement helped by CANDU is the province of Ontario phasing out coal something others talk about but never achieve.

  30. Chris O’Neill, I need to appologise again. I was walking to the supermarket when I realized I’d actually made my mistake when I checked my figures and my original result should be correct. So using the values I gave earlier, someone with a 5% discount rate should be able to make money with $600 a kilowatt-hour home energy storage. I apologise for my confusion.

  31. @Ronald Brak

    Seriously Ronald … You’re a lovely chap but perhaps you ought to have dipped out of this topic a couple of apologies ago …

    I’m half expecting you to re-correct this correction in a few minutes.

    Maybe you just stipulate that in the long run you think it’s worth it and that people regularly buy stuff that doesn’t really meet good NPV tests because they can’t do the calculations or simply because they like the idea.

    Years ago, over a couple of years I spent about $8000 getting orthodontic work done on my second son. I wasn’t and couldn’t be sure at the outset of the out of pocket expenses nor whether the results would be perfect as this depended on me successfully getting him to wear various devices while not eating consistently and of course even if it turned out perfectly there was no guarantee he wouldn’t walk into a pub and become the victim of some thug who’d knock out those expensive teeth. I had no idea how much his quality of life would be improved and still don’t now.

    He was my son, and that was enough.

    If you like the idea of a cleaner planet perhaps you will recycle and have solar panels and use tank water and avoid out of season fruits and buy organic and use LEDs in your home even if none of it is as good in ROI terms as going long on pork futures in the commodity market.

    Yes you probably can’t ignore basic financial questions. It’s still much too expensive for hubby to replace the Fiesta with a Nissan Leaf even if it does feel very warm inner glow. But it’s not all about the economics, and for most people, perhaps not even mostly.

  32. Scotland last year provided 40% of its electricity from renewables and is on track for 100% by 2020, including phasing out all nuclear.


    If they can do it, we certainly can.

    I wish the nuclear lobby in Australia would just give up. No matter how genuine some of you on this site may be, the dispute muddies the waters and prevents us from getting on with the real tasks, which are
    Reduce consumption
    Move to 100% renewable.

    Please pro nuclear people, just give up. I know the saying “it’s time to move on” can be offensive in some circumstances, but in this case I think it’s certainly appropriate. These disputes just split the anti fossil fuel lobby, and meanwhile Big Coal keeps stuffing up the planet. I urge everyone to support the Leard Blockade instead (check out #Leardblockade for updates if you are on twitter).

  33. @Val
    Why not make Iceland our shining example? 100% of their electricity comes from renewable sources. Mind you petrol is the equivalent of $2.40 a litre.

    Here’s a novel thought which I suspect you will quickly dismiss. Suppose it was not practically possible for Australia to have more than 20% renewable energy including transport. By pushing impractically high renewable penetration you are in reality prolonging the reign of coal. Here’s 100% again… I’m 100% certain you’ll reject that idea.

  34. @Hermit
    Dear Hermit

    I don’t own a car, and my electricity usage (even before I had solar panels installed recently) was less than half that of a comparable average Victorian household. So I feel 99% confident you are talking to wrong straw woman here!

    Generally I try to practise what I preach, and I also think that if I can do it, so can other people.

    (Admission in the interests of transparency – I have a daughter living in Germany so I do unfortunately travel by air more than I would like to. Hopefully she will be coming home this year, but it’s an example of a major social issue that is hard to address, unlike reducing car travel and lowering electricity consumption, which are pretty low hanging fruit really, if we really made the effort).

  35. @Hermit
    btw the reason I’m only 99% confident is that I’m a public health researcher and we’re not allowed to be 100% confident of anything!

    anyway nice as it is chatting, I’d better do some work.

    (Stop pushing nuclear! I didn’t put that in caps because it’s rude, but you are free to imagine it that way.)

  36. @Will Boisvert

    I always feel I have entered a parallel universe when I am told non-renewable reserves “only get more abundant” the more they are used. This absurd premise states that “recoverable reserves” increase as one uses a resource. This adverts to the fallacy that redefining “recoverable reserves” actually increases recoverable reserves. Thus reserves of lower concentration and more difficult recovery are redefined as recoverable reserves. This is done ultimately in defiance of the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Below a certain concentration all reserves are essentially non-recoverable. If they are energy reserves they become an energy sink i.e. it takes more energy to recover them than they produce when utilised. If they are mineral reserves they become prohibitively expensive to recover primarily in energy terms and secondarily in financial terms.

    There is a great difference between business analyses of recoverable reserves and scientific (physical-thermodynamic analyses) of recoverable reserves. It is clear you are using business anlayses as authoritative. Business analyses are based on orthodox business management principles and orthodox economic principles. These principles assume that financial analysis is the most fundamental analysis which can be applied to resources and resource recovery. This is false. The most fundamental analysis which can be applied is physical quantitative analysis and the laws of thermodynamics. Attempts to run resource recovery in a manner which ignores physical laws will rapidly collapse.

    The fact that you keep repeating the fallacy about getting uranium from seawater simply demonstrates to me that you have no idea about energy costs (energy return on energy input). Recovering uranium from sea water (where it exists at 3 part per billion) is impractical and an energy loss making enterprise.

    Nuclear energy proponents (outside the military-industrial establishment with their own agenda) are almost invariably physics illiterates.

  37. The fact that you keep repeating the fallacy about getting uranium from seawater simply demonstrates to me that you have no idea about energy costs (energy return on energy input). Recovering uranium from sea water (where it exists at 3 part per billion) is impractical and an energy loss making enterprise.

    Nuclear energy proponents (outside the military-industrial establishment with their own agenda) are almost invariably physics illiterates.

    I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, Ikon. Uranium extraction from seawater certainly has immense practical challenges, and may not be feasible, but it’s not at all clear that it’s an energy loss-making enterprise. Ugo Bardi, for example, estimated that it has an EROEI of 2.5, which is low, but positive. He concluded that it probably wasn’t feasible, but did acknowledge that the figures were quite speculative, and that there was scope to improve the efficiency of the process.

  38. @Val

    service charge $1.15 a day

    Wow, that’s huge service charge. Mine’s 73c a day but I haven’t tried to get a better deal again.

    av use about 2 kWh per day for nine months of year

    There’s a big incentive for low users to go off the grid at that rate.

    The problem with going off grid is that your solar cells will have to provide enough energy through the winter so your solar power station will not be cheap for your average energy usage. Bang goes your incentive.

  39. @Ikonoclast

    24/7 power availability is easily achieveable

    replacing stationary energy is not our real big problem

    It’s so easy it will be 100% renewable any day now.

  40. @Chris O’Neill
    I don’t think you can be right Chris. At #5 you said

    In any case the most optimistic figures I’ve seen, using the price of cheap Li-ion batteries and the performance of the best Li-ion batteries, yields a battery cost of at least 50c/kWh delivered.

    And I said that taking the service charge into account (Origin Energy) I appear to be paying about 80c per kWh delivered for most of the year. Actually I have now done the calculation for the whole year and it comes to (av 3.3 kWh day x usage charge 24c + daily service charge $1.15/3.3) 58.8c per kWh delivered.

    So by your calculations it would be cheaper for me to go off the grid. Of course this is all theoretical now because I have solar which changes all the price structure, but as a quick guesstimate, the most FIT I’m likely to get most of the year is about 50c per day (leaving aside winter because that’s completely different) so I’d still be paying Origin over 50c per day even though I’d be using less than 1 kWh from them. Probably have to go away and recalculate all this, but it still looks as if it would be cheaper to go off grid, if your calculation of 50c per kWh from battery is right.

  41. Val, if you want to go off grid now, you’ll probably find the best overall deal available to you involves some battery chemistry other than lithium, such as iron-nickle. These other chemistries won’t be maintenance free but for people off grid that’s generally a minor concern. But please don’t go off grid. The rest of the world needs your surplus solar electricity. Each kilowatt-hour of solar generated electricity you send out into the grid is a kilowatt-hour of electricity that’s not generated from coal or gas. (More than a kilowatt-hour actually, due to the lack of transmission losses.)

  42. I don’t want to take my solar power off-grid but I would ideally like to have battery back-up so I could have power during blackouts. Currently, even a daytime blackout means no power as my solar set-up switches off to protect people working on the grid. It’s called “anti-islanding” meaning they don’t want solar generating “islands” electrifying a blacked-out grid and electrocuting workers. The workers should be able to assume the grid is out until they restore power. Clearly solar power alone also cannot meet a household’s fluctuating demands when combined with the intermittency of solar itself.

    Thus the ideal set-up (excluding capital cost issues) would be to have a grid connection, power feed to and power take from the grid, combined with a battery back-up system for blackouts. I suspect power flow control issues would be quite complex. Given that I get a high solar feed in tarriff, my system would logically feed all excess solar power to gridand the batteries would be charged / re-charged from the grid at a cheaper rate. In daylight hours, a smart system would feed power from my batteries to the house whilst all solar power would go to the grid to gain the high feed-in tariff. My battery system would then re-charge at night.

    A blackout at or after dusk on this set-up could encounter depleted battery banks. Therefore the control system would have to place a limit on discharging batteries by day such that some minimum of energy was left for a blacked-out night. This energy should be able to run a fridge, a few lights and maybe a computer or TV for about 6 to 8 hours. Clearly one would still have scale back electricity use during the blackout. Most days would be sunny enough to begin recharging the battery bank and to continue the above level of use safely. Hot water would continue to come from the solar hot water heater.

    To my mind this would be an ideal set-up provided it is technically feasible and that the capital costs are not excessive. Currently, blackouts are rare enough that the capital costs seem unjustified. If we enter an era where brownouts are common this might change one’s assessment.

  43. Ikonoclast, given concerns you’ve mentioned about the future, you may want to consider investing in iron-nickel batteries as they can keep operating with marginal deterioration for over 30 years. Once you’ve got them you could purchase extra solar panels to charge them instead of running them off your current set which is locked into a high feed in tariff arrangement. This means no feed in tariff for any extra electricity produced by your new panels but that’s not really a problem given the low cost of solar these days and the high cost of grid electricity. And if you really want to be sure of having electricity you could purchase a very small generator. It would only need to be small as you could use it to charge your batteries rather than run appliences directly.

    Another thing you could do is install “anti-islanding protection” or whatever it is called which will let you use electricity from your rooftop solar during a blackout. But from a purely dollars and cents point of view it may be best to wait until your high feed in tariff is over and then see what the best options available to you then are.

  44. If you live in the suburbs whatever you do don’t get a diesel backup generator. Sure hospitals have them to use for half an hour a year. Even people with jet skis will think it’s too much.

  45. @Ronald Brak
    Good point Ronald. Actually going off the grid is more of a theoretical question for me at present, mainly because I’m so fed up with my energy provider (origin) – they are not only paying me 8c for my solar and charging others 24c for it, but they are also lobbying to get rid of the RET.

    I can just imagine all these fat cat execs on $1/2 million (and more) per annum, sitting round complaining about how the renewables are messing up their business model. Overpaid dinosaurs.

  46. @Val

    58.8c per kWh delivered.
    So by your calculations it would be cheaper for me to go off the grid.

    Well, no. I said it would be at least 50c for the battery + 9c for the net cost of lost feed-in plus various other costs that have been ignored.

    And 50c/kWh for the battery cost is also based on the optimistic assumption that the battery is fully utilized every day of the year for its entire life. Getting close to that is possible if you only rely on the battery for part of your non-solar cell power so that it can be fully utilized but if you are off-grid then your battery will not be fully utilized if it’s big enough to avoid the risk of running flat.

    So 50c/kWh is a very optimistic approximation.

  47. @Chris O’Neill
    Yeah I already acknowledged that having solar would change the calculations. But I think the broader point – in the context of this thread – is that when you take into account the cost of being on the grid (service charge) for low use householders the cost of renewable + battery is already similar to the cost of being on the grid.

    I think we also need to factor in here that in our current grid system, low users subsidise high users, which is not equitable, but also very counter-productive from a sustainability point of view.

    My preferred solution would be localism – local renewable systems shared amongst say a few hundreds/thousands of households, businesses etc in a geographical area (not being a specialist I don’t really know the best figures) .

    Anyway again I argue we can shift to 100% renewable within a relatively short space if we really put our minds to it, and advocating for nuclear is at best a distraction.

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