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. @ 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.

  2. –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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. @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.

  8. 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).

  9. @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.

  10. @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).

  11. @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.)

  12. @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.

  13. 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.

  14. @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.

  15. @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.

  16. @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.

  17. 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.)

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. @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.

  22. @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.

  23. @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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