Why nuclear power worked once in France and might work again in China

That’s the question I looked at a while back in this piece in the National Interest, which I was too busy to post about at the time. TNI’s headline, which I didn’t pick, is the more definitive ‘China Can Make Nuclear Power Work‘. The key point is that, when France embarked on a crash program to implement nuclear energy in the early 1970s, all the right ingredients were in place: a centralised state in which a skilled technocratic elite could push projects through without much regard to public opinion, the ability to fix on a single standardised design, low real interest rates and preferential access to capital, and the ability to fix pricing structures that eliminated much of the risk in the enterprise.

Over time, these factors were eroded, with the result that as the program progressed, the cost per megawatt of French nuclear plants tripled in real terms. As the Flamanville fiasco has shown, whatever the secret of French success 40 years ago, it has been well and truly lost now. And the picture is equally bleak for nuclear power in other developed countries. New nuclear power is far more expensive than renewables, even after making every possible allowance for the costs of intermittency, the various subsidies available, and so on. That’s why, despite the vast range of different policy settings and market structures in developed countries, the construction of new nuclear plants has been abandoned almost everywhere.

But China today looks, in many respects, like France in the 1970s, a technocratic state-capitalist society with the capacity to decide on, and implement, large scale projects with little regard to anyone who might object. If nuclear power can be made to work anywhere, it’s probably in China.

Obviously, pro-nuclear commenters like Hermit and Will Boisvert are welcome to have their say on this one.

181 thoughts on “Why nuclear power worked once in France and might work again in China

  1. @Ikonoclast

    Ahh, the tin foil hats are already out in force. Physicians for Social Responsibility are cranks and Helen Calidcot is one of the biggest cranks of them all. They have no scientific standing. They are nothing more than political anti-nukes that trade in fear and radiophobia.

  2. > Until I hear a satisfactory answer

    But you’re the one who gets to decide whether an answer “satisfies” you.

  3. BilB, most cars in Australia are only driven an average of 40 km a day, so a 50 kilometer all electric range would cover most people’s driving needs. I assume it’s designed to accept European current so it would fully charge in under 4 hours from a normal power point which makes charging at work or elsewhere easy. No need for any special charging points. If they wanted to they could even put solar cells on the roof to extend the all electric range and let it slowly charge when it’s sitting in the sun, although that’s not likely to be a priority on a hybrid. But considering that the roof of the car provides the structure of the panel and that has to be paid for whether or not it’s used to support solar cells, putting solar PV on cars would be very cheap, if done on a large scale.

  4. @Ikonoclast

    As a reality check, to generate the same amount of electricity as did the damaged Fukushima Daiichii plant from PV farms would require the entire evacuation area around the damaged plant. The forested and agricultural areas all sacrificed for effectively all time or all least until something more sensible was adopted. And then you would have the rather considerable problem of rehabilitation. The effect on local biodiversity would be catastrophic and orders of magnitude more than any harm from the nuclear accident.

    This is just utter bollocks. And I’m not even anti nuclear.

  5. Collin, do you think the work that Quokka’s supposed environmentalists would do on exploring avenues for cost reduction will satisfy him, or do you think they’d always be doing things like dropping the carbon rods and getting their isotopes mixed up and stuff? Personally it sounds like a bit of a recipe for disaster to me.

  6. Using BREE’s 2013 Energy in Australia bulletin Table 2 I get 6029 PJ dividing for an even 23m people mid 2013 I get about 262 gigajoules per capita annual average primary energy consumption. Note only about 40% or less of the primary energy of fuels make it through to electricity or vehicle propulsion. In terms of petrol worth 35 MJ per litre I make that equivalent to about 7.5 kilolitres of annual petrol equivalent per man, woman and child. Not easy to replace with low carbon sources.

    Re German coal plants I’m pretty sure the original objective was reducing emissions. Perhaps when concerns emerged of tsunamis devastating Germany the objective changed. I think it provides a strong hint when not one of the coal baseload stations in the Hunter and Latrobe valleys is retired in the next 10 years we’ll find ways to justify it.

  7. @Ronald Brak
    Quokka’s demand that environmentalists take responsibility for bringing nuclear costs down is an absurdity.

    The job of bringing down the cost of renewable energy is performed by engineers and managers working in the renewable energy industry. The job of bringing down the costs of nuclear belongs to engineers and managers in the nuclear industry.

    Whether or not said engineers and managers are environmentalists is irrelevant, although presumably some of them are.

  8. @Tim Macknay,

    This is just utter bollocks. And I’m not even anti nuclear.

    Time you looked at the numbers. We will take as an example, the Antelope Valley PV project in Califoria. The important numbers

    Nameplate Capacity: 100 MW
    Area 8.5 km^2

    Lets assume the capacity factor is 20%. The insolation will almost certainly be better than at Fukushima.

    => 0.425 km^2 / Average MW

    Capacity of Fukushima Daiichi ~4.5 GW.

    Lets be very pessimistic and assume 80% capacity factor => 3.6 average GW

    Scaling Antelope Valley up to 3.6 GW average would need 3.6 x 1000 x 0.425 = 1620 km^2

    Size of the 30 km radius evacuation area ~1500 km^2


    I have advantaged solar and disadvantaged nuclear in the comparison. My original statement was fair and not in any way misleading.

    A good example of why we should examine what we think we know.

  9. @Tim Macknay

    Quokka’s demand that environmentalists take responsibility for bringing nuclear costs down is an absurdity.

    They have for years demanded policy to being the cost of renewables down. What’s different about nuclear power?

  10. I have just taken a look at NREL’s real time Open PV database for the US market.

    Average 2013 cost per watt: $4.52

    Not cheaper than nuclear by a large margin.

  11. @quokka
    Where is this alleged “active opposition” to nuclear energy by environmentalists “on the grounds of cost” anyways? As far as I can tell, there is active opposition by many environmentalists on the ground of safety (which in my view often exaggerate the safety risks) and weapons proliferation risks, as well as observations by economists (including Prof Q), some of whom might also be described as environmentalists, that the expense of nuclear appears to be a significant limiting factor in its uptake, and the downward cost trends of major renewables in recent years have made it look less competitive going forward. I would not call the latter “active opposition”, just analysis. Those environmentalists who do oppose nuclear energy (rightly or wrongly) evidently don’t call for it’s costs to be reduced because they object to it for the other stated reasons. Then there is a comparatively small number of environmentalists who have called for the embrace of nuclear as part of the toolkit for addressing global warming.

    It seems to me that you’re conflating environmentalists in general, as well as people who disagree with your irrational anti-renewables stance, with the likes of Helen Caldicott. I call bullsh*t.

  12. @Will Boisvert
    I notice that in Will’s scenario in which Germany builds new nukes (not just stopping the accelerated shutdown of the existing fleet) these do not require any additional transmission. I suppose they go on the Rhine at Dusseldorf. Being slightly more realistic, they would go on the North Sea coast, like allof Britain’s planned reactors. So they would need the same onshore transmission to South Germany as the actually planned offshore wind farms.

    Many German Greens contest the grid expansion plans, which are a consequence of the decision to go for high-cost offshore wind. They argue that expanding and repowering onshore wind farms and solar over the whole country would be cheaper overall, precisely because of lower transmission. It’s partly a fight between rent-seeking big corporations (for offshore) and cooperatives (onshore).

  13. In Australia nukes should logically use seawater cooling unless known inland sites have reliable water supply. However California has banned once-through cooling including seawater presumably to help justify the closure of the San Onofre plant. Note the state’s emissions then shot up some 35% I believe putting them in company with Germany and Japan as wilful emissions increasers. The point is that the seawater ban is like the ‘must take’ effect of a quota on a particular technology…it tilts the otherwise level playing field and suggests ideology rather than reason.

    High per capita energy consumption numbers are in part due to activities which are out of sight and out of mind. Ditto water consumption. For example cement making even if you are not personally a big cement user you presumably get the benefit of living in a cement making economy. Changing light bulbs is just tinkering around the edges.

  14. @ James Wimberley,

    “I notice that in Will’s scenario in which Germany builds new nukes (not just stopping the accelerated shutdown of the existing fleet) these do not require any additional transmission. I suppose they go on the Rhine at Dusseldorf. Being slightly more realistic, they would go on the North Sea coast, like allof Britain’s planned reactors. So they would need the same onshore transmission to South Germany as the actually planned offshore wind farms.”

    James, where on earth are you getting this from? What makes you think nuclear reactors in Germany have to be located on the North Sea coast? Of Germany’s 17 operating reactors in 2010, a grand total of 3 were located on the North Sea coast. 11 were located in southern Germany. New reactors could be built at existing nuclear sites or coal plants that already have plenty of transmission linkage—just plug and play.

    Germany is building offshore wind because its onshore wind gets an 18 percent capacity factor and its solar panels 11 percent. Combined onshore wind and solar output can plummet to less than 5 percent of nameplate for a week on end, next to nothing for many 2 and 3-day periods. Germany is desperate for more reliable sources of renewable power, and offshore wind is the only scaleable source. New transmission is needed to transport wind surges south, but also to transport solar surges to the north, which is quite often calm and sunless.

  15. Those who are genuinely uncertain about nuclear power would do well to look at the following site closely. Just search for energyfairdotorgdotuk. Obviously just substitute . for dot

    If you are uncertain about nuclear power do not be led astray by the disingenuous pleading of nuclear power advocates. Seek other, reputable sources of information. Energy Fair UK have an abundance of papers on the nuclear power issue on their site. Here is an outline quote from one paper.

    “There is an opportunity cost in nuclear power: in terms of the fight against climate change, security of energy supplies and other considerations, nuclear power diverts attention, effort, and large amounts of money away from renewables and the conservation of energy, where those resources would be more effectively spent.

    There is no valid justification for providing subsidies for nuclear power:

    Nuclear power is a mature technology that should not require any subsidy….
    The nuclear industry is already heavily subsidised (see Nuclear Subsidies, PDF).

    There is abundant evidence from reputable sources that, in general, renewables, with conservation of energy:

    – Can provide greater security in energy supplies than nuclear power;
    – Are substantially more effective than nuclear power in cutting emissions of CO2;
    – Are cheaper than nuclear power, taking account of all subsidies;
    – Can be built much faster than nuclear power stations;
    – Can easily meet all our needs for energy, now and for the foreseeable future;
    – Provide more flexibility than nuclear power;
    – Provide diversity in energy supplies;
    – Are largely free of the several problems with nuclear power.”

    Click to access nuclear_subsidies1.pdf

  16. @Will Boisvert
    The scenario game of expanding nuclear power in Germany when there’s a rock-solid consensus across the political spectrum to shut it all down is of limited interest.
    Germany’s low 18% capacity factor for wind is a puzzle. France gets a lot more with only somewhat better wind conditions. One factor is the age of the fleet. Germany started early, so a lot of the turbines are old, small, unreliable and inefficient. Germany has started repowering so the worst ones are rapidly dropping out of the statistics. There’s been a lot of technical progress in wind over the last 20 years. For one, new designs of turbines have much higher ratios of swept area to generator size, trading a loss in peak output for a higher and longer average. GE claims a 45% capacity factor for its latest low-wind design. You, like Berlin decision-makers, are assuming that onshore wind has limitations it may well be overcoming.

  17. Quokka, you gave an American price for solar of $4.52 a watt and wrote that it’s not cheaper than nuclear by a large margin. Actually rooftop solar at that cost will produce electricity in much of the United States for less than Hinkley C’s minimum price. And as Europe and Australia have demonstrated the cost of solar can fall very fast. For example, Austin Texas is purchasing utility scale solar power for about 8 US cents per kilowatt-hour before subsidies and that is considerably cheaper than US new nuclear. I don’t know how much point of use solar costs in the UK but at German installation costs it easily outcompetes electricity from Hinkley C. And utility scale solar has been built in the UK for about a pound a watt and currently produces electricity at a much lower cost than Hinkley C’s minimum price. And I could point out that nuclear power actually has to compete with the future cost of solar which is likely to be much cheaper, but that’s enough for now. You can let this information seep into your brain and change your priors. Feel that sensation? That’s the neurons in your brain forming new connections in response to learning. AHHH! LOOK OUT! THE AMYGDALA’S ATTACKING!!!

  18. According to the online almanac the sun will set at 4.01 pm on December 31st in London. I imagine a few hardy souls might stay up til 5 pm with their kerosene lamps.

  19. Hermit, are you arguing in favour of the proposition that installing solar power will somehow make people in England forget how to generate electricity by any means other than solar power? Because if you are, that’s a really bizarre thing to argue in favour of. Do you think that solar panel poisoning will cause Englanders to revert to a troglodyte like existence and the heirs of Maxwell will no longer be capable of making current flow after the bronze disk in the sky sinks into the Atlantic?

  20. A odd link between Brit solar and Hinkley is Kevin McCloud of the ‘Grand Designs’ TV show. He seems to mock small scale PV in the UK while evidently approving the Hinkley B reactor which he visited on one of his shows. Some people I know in a overcast area in Oz have 60 panels (x250w=15kw) whereas the supposedly back to earth Brits on the show typically have just half a dozen panels.

    I suspect Hinkley C with two Areva EPR reactors may never get built due to inherent problems. I think the main reason it was selected was because the French and Chinese put up the capital knowing it ticked the box and there would a generous cash flow later. If this pans out the UK will still get nukes but something else instead. They have enough plutonium to power the UK for centuries using 4th generation technology.

  21. So is that a yes or a no, Hermit? Do you think the English will still retain the ability to generate electricity by other means if they install solar? Or do you think they actually will be reduced to either darkness and kerosene lanterns? Also, is this likely to interfere with our receiving new episodes of Doctor Who? Should we be making arrangements with the BBC to start filming it here once England falls into the dark ages again?

  22. I watched a Grand Designs progamme just yesterday and the comment about the PV panel implied that it was a compound PV/Thermal water heating unit such as the SOLiMPEKS. This might, if true, explain the system small size if it seen as being mostly for water heating.

  23. BilB, having a combined PV and solar water heater might be handy for people in the UK and other places where they might have limited roof space, but here a cheap and simple method for people with existing electric hot water systems would be just put some extra solar panels on the roof and put a timer on the hot water system. A simple method of solar energy storage.

  24. I just came across some statistics. Italy gets 7.8% of its total electricity use from solar, Germany 6.2%, and Greece 5.8%. China and the US both currently get less than 1% but obviously neither country is going to stay at that low level. This year Australia may get up to 3% of its total electricity use from solar, but I don’t have a solid figure for that. Clearly Australia will have no trouble exceeding Italy’s current 7.8% and it’s very unclear what the actual end point may be. If electricity retailers maintain high daytime prices for grid electricity then basically every home and business is going to have an incentive to minimise their consumption of grid electricity and with the cost of solar continuing to decline we could end up with a humongous amount of point of use solar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s