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. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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