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. I think the essential point is that it takes firm and unwavering government commitment to emissions reductions, beyond mere removal of partisan political anti nuclear objections, for nuclear to get up and running as a replacement for fossil fuels. Token nuclear can get up in the presence of climate obstructionism but not at a scale to be a climate solution. Any government that opposes action on climate will not have the commitment. A government that sees it’s role as going in to bat as direct advocates for the future of the fossil fuel sector and are willing to promote lies about the climate problem to do so, is going to be incapable of using the truth about the climate problem to promote nuclear.

    Then there are the relative costs, which really only look good against fossil fuels in a regulatory environment that counts climate costs, but look less good against renewables in it’s absence. And renewables don’t need strong, long running bipartisan support to get a foothold.

    Carbon pricing is nuclear’s best friend but it would have worked best for nuclear back before solar and wind got their legs.

  2. There may, and note this is just me wondering out loud (and then typing it down), there may be an element of self selection in the cost over runs experienced by new nuclear. To promote the building of a nuclear power plant one basically has to be a liar, either lying directly or lying though negligence by deliberately ignoring things such as the evidence that better alternatives make new nuclear a bad deal and the fact that the small but real chance of a nuclear disaster significantly increases the cost of nuclear power. So management would tend to ends up being populated by either out and out liars or by people who are simply unwilling to interpret information correctly and ignore truth and believe lies told to them by the people under them. In other words they suffer from derp. This kind of management is obviously a recipe for disaster. Fortunately the nuclear industry is regulated so it’s mostly a recipe for economic disaster, but managerial incompetance certainly makes real disaster more likely. A good example of this sort of thing is NASA’s space shuttle program where there were managers who apparently sincerely believed that the chance of losing a space shuttle was one in one hundred thousand per flight. Considering that they had the information right in front of them that they couldn’t make much simpler rockets they’d been using for decades that reliable, self deception or our and out lying are the only real explanations. They even managed to ignore NASA engineers, the people who actually designed and built the thing, who thought the chance of losing a shuttle was closer to one in a hundred. A modern risk analysis puts the chance up to the challenger disaster at around one in ten. So basically if you want to build a nuclear plant the only people available to do it are going to be some combination of liars and incompetents. In what portion I just don’t know.

  3. @ BilB

    –“Five Western Democracies building one each nuclear reactor does not amount to any kind of resurgence, Will Boisvert, and certainly qualifies as “abandoned almost everywhere.””

    Not quite. The United States is currently building five reactors. South Korea has five under construction and six more in immediate planning. And the formula “abandoned almost everywhere” implies that the West is “almost everywhere.” Energy policy in China and India, which have ambitious nuclear builds underway, will have far more impact on global climate than policies in all the West combined.

    “The thrust of the argument here is that China is as primed to accept large scale adoption of Nuclear in similar circumstances as France was when it installed most of its.”

    I think the real rhetorical thrust of the OP and its referent article is that nuclear only works where it is imposed by an authoritarian political elite. The argument proceeds by suggesting that the French government of the 1970s and 80s was the dirigiste equivalent of China’s current regime. I find all of this unconvincing

    “Talking about France during the period of introduction you are not recognising that national feeling in France was very much in support of the nuclear programme and that was only eroded by Nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and the global reaction to them”

    Good point, but it reinforces my argument that French nuclear policy was the product of democratic consensus and not, as Grubler and John have it, an imposition by a technocratic elite riding roughshod over popular sentiment. The French nuclear program was shaped by the normal vagaries of democratic politics—going forward when popular, curtailed when not.

    “at Flamanville costs have run out to be some 6 billion dollars per GWe, nearly 3 times the original estimate. Again supporting JQ’s argument.”

    Not quite. The OP and the research cited was about escalation in the final costs of finished plants over many years, not escalation during one build from budget forecast to final cost. Yes, Flamanville is a blowout, but the EPR builds are outliers. We shouldn’t take them as characteristic of the “true” costs of nuclear power, since the great majority of nuclear projects are coming in cheaper and faster.

  4. @ Ronald Brak,

    There’s also Shimane 3, it’s 94 percent completed, suspended since the tsunami but not cancelled, Chugoku is applying for a license to fire it up.

  5. @ John Quiggin, on Grubler’s estimates of French nuclear cost escalation.

    Komanoff’s 2010 paper criticized Grubler’s methodology in deriving his cost inflation figures from very skimpy data available in 2000, and arrived at a cost inflation factor of 1.6-2.5, substantially lower than Grubler’s 3.4. But Komanoff was working from the same data as Grubler—which is to say, no actual data on individual reactor costs; Grubler derived those numbers by guesstimating from global budgets for the program as a whole.

    But in 2012 the official Cour des Comptes report finally came out with detailed data on individual reactor costs throughout the French build, which had not been available to researchers. Analyzing those data, Rangel and Leveque arrived at an escalation factor of 1.5, including the costliest late builds; so, a 50 percent real cost escalation over several decades, as opposed to Grubler’s estimate of 240 percent.

    Given that both Grubler’s estimate and Komanoff’s revision were derived from the same inadequate data, their numbers should be regarded as superseded by later work.

  6. @ John Quiggin,

    –South Korea is an interesting case: another developed country and liberal democracy with a systematic nuclear program that’s building reactors cheap and fast. In January they greenlighted 2 more of their Gen III APR-1400 reactors, at a cost of $2500 per kilowatt and both due online by 2020. Nuclear is the cheapest power on the South Korean grid, cheaper than coal.

    (Unfortunately, the Fukushima accident and a recent scandal involving faked certificates for substandard electrical cables have raised political opposition, so the Government trimmed its nuclear expansion plans from 41 % to 29 % of generation in 2035; that will still require building up to 22 new reactors. Hopefully the decision will be reversed because the nuclear retrenchment is expected to be made up by fossil fuels, not renewables.)

    So we have three examples of countries with cheap, fast, large-scale nuclear rollouts: France 30 years ago, South Korea and China now. Two of those three programs have taken place under developed liberal democracies. Then there’s the example of other advanced democracies with less coordinated and expeditious but still very large (and often very cheap for part of the program) nuclear build-outs, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Ontario. So I think the linkage you’re trying to draw between large-scale nuclear and unaccountable elite politics doesn’t hold up well.

    –“UK: One super-expensive reactor planned for political reasons”

    Britain is actually planning to build 19 new gigawatts of nuclear power. In addition to Hinkley C, several projects have consortia lined up and investing in them, including reactor vendors, and are applying for licensing. These include: 2 more EPRs to be built by EDF at Sizewell C; the Horizon project at Oldbury and Wylfa, with two 1350 MW GE-Hitachi ABWR reactors at each site; the NuGeneration project at Moorside, with three AP1000s. So Britain’s nuclear program is pretty serious.

  7. @ John Quiggin,

    “Obviously, I would like to roll back market liberalism, but, optimistic as I am, I can’t foresee massive changes over the next decade, which is the outer limit of the time we have to substantially decarbonise electricity generation. So, whatever appeal nuclear power might have in a different world, it is a red herring in the one we actually live in.”

    Just ten years to decarbonize? That’s a counsel of despair.

    It’s out of the question that renewables alone will substantially decarbonize the global grid in ten years. Wind and solar will likely not even be able to decarbonize the increment in fossil fueled generation over that period. Ten years from now nuclear will be generating much more clean energy than it does now, and much more than wind and solar combined. And nuclear’s the red herring?

  8. @ James Wimberley,

    “It does look as if there’s something specific to nuclear that gives it a negative learning curve, as Arnulf Grubler argues.”.

    That’s not what Grubler says. He blames the “negative learning curve” (which he greatly exaggerates) on the abandonment of the initial French policy of building a standardized model en masse, and on politically motivated decisions to source domestically with higher-priced French components and stretch out nuclear build times to keep people employed (and thus a prospective export industry alive.) Had France continued to follow its Fordist model—big orders of a standardized model, mass produced by integrated organizations able to internalize the learning curve—there would have been no cost escalation.

    –“According to Mycle Schneider’s World Nuclear Report- he may be biased but he’s certainly well-informed – China is proceeding with the 28 reactors it started before Fukushima, but didn’t open any new construction sites in the first half of 2013.

    James, since Fukushima China has begun construction on 8 reactors: Fangchenggang 2 in 7/11; Fuqing 4 in 11/12; Shandong 1 in 12/12; Tianwan 3 and 4 in 12/12 and 9/13; Yangjiang 5 and 6 in 9/13 and 12/13; and just last week its first Gen III CAP-1400 reactor. All these reactors are due on line by 2020.

    It’s not wise to rely exclusively on anti-nuclear activists like Schneider for information on the nuclear industry.

  9. Will, you’re obviously well informed, and your discussion certainly motivated me to take a closer look at the French and Chinese cases. But you don’t help your case by talking up examples like the US, where the nuclear renaissance has been a total flop. As I’m sure you know, one of the five plants under construction is Watts Bar, which was started in 1973. The other four, two projects of two reactors each, are the last remnants of a program that was supposed to produce dozens of new plants. There’s nothing more planned, and the handful of additional plants has already been more than offset by early closure of others.

    When I see the US example quoted by you as a success, I’m led to distrust what you say in other cases.

  10. Wills Boisvert, thank you for your reply. I am a little surprised Japan is going ahead with Shimane 3 given its seismic activity problems and being in a more populated area than the Oma reactor, but I see the plant was close to completion at the point the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred.

  11. @Will Boisvert

    As with Hermit, I’m underwhelmed by the phrase “out of the question” as used by critics of renewables. CO2 emissions from electricity have already peaked in many developed countries and are projected to do the same for China by 2027 under current policy. Obviously, that’s not good enough, but the same report says the peak date could be brought forward to 2023 with a carbon price of $16/tonne which is trivially low. A really serious effort, of which the Chinese state is fully capable (see OP) could bring this about much faster.

    By contrast with nuclear, even with a favorable political climate and a brownfields site, there’s no way a developed country project is going to go from conception to completion inside 10 years. So, the additional contribution of nuclear is bounded above by the set of projects already under consideration, which is nowhere near big enough to be of much use.

  12. Paul Gilding uses Germany as an example of uneconomic energy companies and you could argue that energy companies elsewhere are in profit. Similar energy producer the UK (the Big Six) are reporting record profits however the matched hikes in energy costs to the consumer are having political consequences. The wish list of nuclear facilities to be built in the UK has narrowed to one, at Hinkley Pt, which is going through all sorts of planning and regulatory issues. Apparently the only way the Govt could attract investment was to promise a minimum price for energy for years, decades even. More here

    Once again, the UK Government is taking a massive bet that fossil fuel prices will be extremely high in the future. If that bet proves to be wrong then this contract will look economically insane when HPC commissions.

    We are frankly staggered that the UK Government thinks it is appropriate to take such a bet and under-write the economics of any power station that costs £5m per MW and takes 9 years to build.

    As far as we can see this makes Hinkley Point the most expensive power station in the world (excluding hydro schemes) on a per MW basis and also the plant with the longest construction period. By way of contrast, for the cost of £16 billion for the 3,200MW to be built the UK could build 27,000MW of new CCGT gas fired power stations solving the ‘energy crunch’ for a generation.

    Based on the disclosure so far this looks likely to be an outstanding deal for EDF and its partners. On a leveraged basis we expect EDF to earn a Return on Equity (ROE) well in excess of 20% and possibly as high as 35%.

    Having considered the known terms of the deal, we are flabbergasted that the UK Government has committed future generations of consumers to the costs that will flow from this deal.

  13. Again, Will Boisvert, the thrust of the post is that Nuclear en mass requires a special political environment and set of conditions, and China is the most likely contender to replicate France’s achievement. Most if not all of the other countries where nuclear is being installed are countries where the need is extreme or they are countries with more Authoritarian political systems.

    India is a case where we are more likely to see a Nuclear failure from their nuclear ambition. This a country where corruption is rife and the construction of their current plant was thrown into disarray when the government decided mid construction that more Indians should be employed so they ejected Chinese workers and replaced them with their own people (with what experience?). It will take only one accident in that country to kill Nuclear stone dead and the probability of that happening is very high.

    The other element in the French experience and timing is the degree of public interconnection. When the French drove their Nuclear program building public consensus to government policy was much easier with the television and communication systems of the time. Building opposition to government policy was a far more difficult process particularly when the government controlled the main visual communication channels. I have not researched this but my recollections of the time support this view. JQ’s argument still holds up. This was a very special time in technological history, a time which also allowed the US to land men on the moon, simply because it was a grand objective.

    Another consideration is the population density. So many arguments fail to register that the increase of the population makes so many things that we can remember from the past when the population was lower than half what it is now are just not possible to occur in the same way now, even despite the fact that the need to do these things is greater. (example: higher populations require more transport, but the land to place the transit paths is fully occupied with housing, hence extremely expensive and requiring complex political choices).

    China has only two options. Kick off their nuclear program energetically, or annex Siberia Putin style, and now that Putin has created the precedent I think that this is the most likely outcome. China have shown their interest in the Arctic by obtaining permanent observer status for that region, and that area of Russia above China is sparsely populated with no doubt a large enough number of Chinese origin people to protect.

    But as I have pointed out higher up China’s interest in Nuclear power is not just for electricity, it is also for cleaner air,..and sooner rather than later.

    As for us here in Australia though Solar is the solution, and for so many reasons. Possibly the best way to demonstrate how robust the solar solution is is to look at the work done here


    Have a look at the TED talk as well.

    The message is that everyone can do it themselves, and for their own benefit. The greater the need the greater the energy that will be applied. That is the difference. If you need a big effect quickly, get everyone involved.

    Our problem in this country is that we have a vested interest that has suddenly been given the situation to allow them to gouge the public, they don’t want to give it up and they now have, for the moment, a have government that is sympathetic to their view for entirely obtuse reasons.

    And then there is Global Warming, we didn’t even get to consider that.

  14. I’m sure they’ll be dotted around the place in incredible numbers (for nuclear). India and Indonesia are keen to follow.

    The next major nuclear accident (we mightn’t be so lucky this time) will occur in China or India. Life is cheap, process is perverted and construction corruption is endemic. The Chinese can’t even build schools for their own children without corruption that causes them to collapse.

  15. Pete, things aren’t quite as bad as you think. The vast majority of schools in China manage to stay upright without collaspsing even a bit. Or if they collapse a little it is soon shored up. A bigger problem is solar power. It’s now being installed in Australia for about $2 a watt, or about $2.70 without renewable energy certificates. This means that even if Australians were paying a more sensible price of about 15 cents a kilowatt-hour instead of about twice that we would still have an incentive to install point of use solar. The way things work now people basically have an incentive to continue to install it until we get most or all our daytime electricity from it. And China can install panels at a lower cost than us because of lower labour costs and minimal transport costs. After all they make the panels. China also has lower capital costs and a better feed in tariff than we do. Another consideration is that keeping money in the bank is a losing proposition in China. Chinese savers effectively have a negative interest rate on their deposits. This is going to make rooftop solar an awfully attracitve proposition for them as there aren’t a lot of good investments for them to put their money into. The upshoot of all this is that wholesale electricity prices during the day are going to plunge as they have been in Australia and this is awful for the economics of nuclear power as it is a high capital and low fuel cost source of electricity. A gas plant, or even a coal plant can save a significant amount of money by shutting down production when electricity prices are low and a hydroelectric dam can hold back water until the evening, but a nuclear plant just loses money. With solar power rapidly expanding The economics of nuclear power which were already awful just got a lot worse. So the chances of there being a big build out of nuclear power in any country is virtually nonexistent. It’s more a matter of how soon will it be before the total amount of nuclear electricity generated goes into decline. To me it already seems to be be here:

    Although I suppose some people will cry that certain shutdowns don’t account on account of how they don’t count and only sissies are afraid of being irradiated anyway.

  16. @Ronald Brak
    The missing factoid is that SA gets 50% of its electricity from burning natural gas. The 1.28 GW Torrens Island baseload station is Australia’s biggest gas user. I’ve already conceded to Tim M that SA does a better job of high penetration renewables than Germany probably because it is gas backed not coal. However I suspect that is about to change with looming increases in the gas price with double or more expected. A new 475 kilovolt transmission line will be constructed to Victoria the aim being to sell RET mandated windpower when the wind is blowing and import brown coal power when it is not.

    Therefore I expect that SA wind power will be increasingly backed by interstate coal burning and not burning of expensive gas within SA itself. I also expect nothing to replace Holden when they pack up as industrial power prices in SA will be too high. Call that ‘success’ if you like others may disagree.

  17. @Will Boisvert
    Will B: Thanks for the update on Chinese data. On your own account, China started 1 reactor in late 2011, 3 in late 2012, 3 in the autumn of 2013, and one new-generation reactor this year. That makes an annual addition of 2-3 GW per year, when they are finished. New Chinese solar was 14 GW nameplate last year, or 2GW continuous-equivalent at 15% capacity factor, so already roughtly matching prospective new nuclear.. Chinese new wind was 16 GW, or 6 GW at 40%, roughly twice. Chinese wind and solar targets are regularly raised, nuclear held steady or dialled back. The Chinese leadership has made up its mind, and nuclear is seen as a useful second fiddle in decarbonisation.

    Will: “That’s not what Grubler says.” Readers can judge. He wrote this:
    “.. It may be more productive to start asking whether these trends are not intrinsic to the very nature of the technology itself: large-scale, lumpy, and requiring a formidable ability to manage complexity in both construction and operation. These intrinsic characteristics of the technology limit essentially all classical mechanisms of cost improvements – standardization, large series, and a large number of quasi-identical experiences that can lead to technological learning and ultimate cost reductions – except one: increases in unit size, i.e., economies of scale.”

    Will: “It’s out of the question that renewables alone will substantially decarbonize the global grid in ten years. Wind and solar will likely not even be able to decarbonize the increment in fossil fueled generation over that period.”
    On the second assertion. Take the annual increment in primary energy demand as 5% of 15 TW or 0.75 TW, and a third of that as electricity, or 250GW. (That’s high, as there’s lots of scope for greater efficiency). So at half wind and half solar, we’d need 312GW annually of wind and 830 GW of solar. On historic trend growth rates of 44% for solar (now back on track) and 27% for wind, renewables can be meeting the increment in demand in 10 years.

    A lot of things have to go right for this to happen, though substantial further cost reductions are pretty bankable. Yes, it needs a lot of effort in grid integration. But far fewer magic ponies than are needed for nuclear rollout on the required scale – 250 reactors a year – , which is frankly incredible.

  18. ohmigawd!
    ” If nuclear power can be made to work anywhere, it’s probably in China.”

    Pro nukers will pounce on this one. They’re terribly well-informed on matters very technical. But in other respects, well they’re just NRB (Not real Bright)

  19. Hermit, you wrote, “I also expect nothing to replace Holden when they pack up as industrial power prices in SA will be too high. Call that ‘success’ if you like others may disagree.”

    Are you arguing in favour of the proposition that renewable energy in South Australia increases wholesale electricity prices. If so, that is contrary to my understanding of reality so I’d be very interested in reading year reasons for thinking this.

    Or are you just engaging in propaganda by attempting the link the winding down of Australia’s car industry with renewable energy? In other words, are you a liar?

    Or are you doing something entirely different which doesn’t fit in these two categories. I wouldn’t want to present you with a false choice. That would be like suggesting Australia has a choice between nuclear power or brown coal fires.

  20. @Hermit
    What you are saying is that infrastructure like the interconnector are being planned and executed without regard to the potential for rising emissions. I see a consistent pattern of those involved in the planning and implementation simply leaving emissions and climate out completely from consideration – it’s deliberate I think, keeping the focus entirely on short term costs and attempting to ignore the climate problem into irrelevance.

    When the final bill for this age of fossil fuels comes in – however many millennia from now that may be – I think we will find the wealth and prosperity attributed to it actually turned out being excessively and surprisingly expensive. Certainly it is not the fault of renewables boosters or those strongly urging action on emissions that energy infrastructure planning is, as it mostly has been, back in the hands of climate science deniers and obstructors that seek to unframe energy as an environmental issue, discredit environmental politics and disconnect discussions of emissions reductions from energy policy.

  21. Ken, since the brown coal generators have been adamantly opposed to the increased interconnector capacity it is obvious they are much more afeared of increased wind electricity imports into Victoria than excited by the propect of increased brown coal electricity exports. South Australia is currently a next electricity exporter of electricity and with its wind and solar capacity increasing electricity exports are obviously going to increase further with an improved interconnector. Now Victoria could experience a wind boom of its own by adopting South Australia’s approval process and setback rules, but it doesn’t seem to be doing that at the moment for some reason.

  22. @ James Wimberley,

    –Chinese nuclear starts are going a bit faster than you estimate. Remember, there was a hiatus on construction approvals for nearly a year after Fukushima, hence the gap. (Also, they’ve had to scale up their training and regulatory programs.) If you take the period spanning Fuqing 4 in 11/12 and the new CAP 1400 last week, that’s roughly 6.6 gigs started in 18 months, so 4.4 gigs per year. Since September 2013, 4.4 gw of nuclear started over 8 months, which is a rate of 6.6 GW per year, with a capacity factor of 90 percent, so 6 GW of “effective” capacity. Compare to 16 GW per year of Chinese wind starts last year, going up to 18 GW in 2014, with a 23 percent CF (no, Chinese wind does not get 40 percent capacity factors). That’s a rate of 3.7 to 4.2 GW “effective” capacity per year in wind starts. So CF-adjusted nuclear starts are outpacing wind starts right now.

    And 6.6 gigs of nuclear will cost about $20 billion compared to the $27 billion cost of 18 GW of wind, while producing half again as much electricity per year—a lot more juice for the yuan, not counting the costs of stringing transmission lines to Inner Mongolia. Chinese officials have been talking up the need to abate pollution with new nuclear plants. My guess is the pace of nuclear starts will accelerate, and at some point the penny may drop and Chinese planners may decide to shift investments from wind to cheaper and more productive and reliable nuclear. It’s a neck and neck race between Chinese wind and nuclear, but my money’s on the nukes.

    –As for Grubler, you’re right, I overstated things and he does suggest “intrinsic” barriers to nuclear learning curves. But I don’t agree with his characterization of his own research. (I certainly don’t agree with his estimate of the size of nuclear cost escalations in France, which are much larger than in other studies.) There’s nothing “intrinsic” to the technology about France’s lapses from standardization and large series, which were the product of politics or (misjudged) managerial decisions. Had France been content to crank out its original models—which work fine—there would have likely been no cost escalation. In fact France never actually achieved true standardization and large series, because it made many small changes from build to build, in addition to several significant model overhauls. None of Grubler’s research shows that nuclear Fordism doesn’t work, if you stick to it. Also, there’s scale and then there’s scale. France’s electricity market in the 1980s may have had trouble absorbing large production runs of “lumpy” reactors to generate learning curves, but I don’t think the colossal US or Chinese grids would. Fordism needs a large market to hold down costs.

    The question is, can nuclear reactors be built fast, cheap and in large numbers? The answer is yes: France did it decades ago, South Korea and China are doing it now.

  23. @ James Wimberly,

    –“312 GW annually of wind and 830 GW of solar” !

    But that would only be meeting the annual increment once we’re actually building that much every year. The increment over the next ten years, which is John’s deadline, will not be decarbonized unless we were actually to start building that much next year, which I think even you will admit is out of the question.

    Your projections are 8 times last year’s wind installations and—what? 20-30 times?—last year’s solar installations. I think that’s out of the question, James; 44 percent yearly growth rates don’t compound forever.

    Also, that combined 1142 GW of capacity would have a firm “capacity value” that can be relied upon of, generously, 10 percent. (The capacity value of Germany’s wind and solar fleet combined is less than 5 percent.) Which means you must also build dispatchible generators to back up the inevitable shortfalls between the 250 GW per year increment and the 114 GW of “reliable” wind and solar capacity value; your cheapest option is to build 136 GW of gas turbines per year as well. Then there’s the tens of billions per year for transmission capacity.

    As for costs, 1142 GW of wind and solar at Western prices costs about $2.2 trillion, at China prices about $1.7 trillion. 275 GW per year of nuclear (increment plus margin) at V. C. Summer prices of $5000 per kilowatt costs $1.38 trillion, at South Korean prices $688 billion, so considerably cheaper even if we don’t count the cost of backup and transmission for wind and solar. But still a tall order!

    Folks, we are not going to decarbonize the global grid in 10 years; neither is the planet going to implode when we don’t. There will be plenty of work for energy policy to do for many decades to come. One of the things we need to do in the meantime is lay the political groundwork for further accelerating the already massive global nuclear expansion.

  24. @Ronald Brak

    I agree with you. S.A.’s wind generation progress is clearly a big success story. People who dispute that are not looking at the real data. Solar PV is also very useful.

    “(T)he Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has noted that the South Australian wholesale prices are lower than they have been since the start of the national electricity market, and that the wind “tends to depress the South Australian regional prices”. The Government stated that the price increase due to the Carbon Tax was approximately half of that experienced by other States due to the high installed capacity of wind and gas-fired generation.” – Wikipedia.

  25. @Will Boisvert

    Could you provide a relevant statement of your interests? Are you paid to promote nuclear power and if so how much are you paid? Alternatively, are you a paid journalist and does you employer require you to be generally pro-nuclear as an explicit or implicit requirement for your continued employment? Are you a member of affiliate of any organisation which promotes nuclear power?

    I have found an online thumbnail bio which says of you:

    “Will Boisvert writes on energy, environmental, and urban policy for The New York Observer, Dissent, and other publications. He lives in New York.” – The Breakthrough Institute.

  26. Some universal law of renewables cheaper than nuclear? Not in the UK.

    From the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change – “Electricity Generating Costs 2013”

    Central estimated Levelized Cost of Electricity for Projects Commissioning in 2020, 2025, 2030 at 10% discount rate:


    Onshore Wind (UK): 100
    OnShore Wind (England and Wales): 108
    Offshore Wind (Round 2): 114
    Offshore Wind (Round 3): 123
    Nuclear 93


    Onshore Wind (UK): 99
    OnShore Wind (England and Wales): 106
    Offshore Wind (Round 2) 109
    Offshore Wind (Round 3) 116
    Nuclear 90


    Onshore Wind (UK): 97
    OnShore Wind (England and Wales): 104
    Offshore Wind (Round 2): 105
    Offshore Wind (Round 3): 111
    Nuclear 80

    Notably, several very large off shore wind projects have been cancelled in the last few months. DECC’s estimates for off shore wind may be too optimistic.

    Nuclear costs include decommissioning and waste management. Renewables costs do not include the extra system costs imposed by variability. The latter rise faster than the amount of variable renewable capacity in the system.

  27. Incidentally, the first CAP1400 reactor is now under construction in China. The CAP1400 is derived from the Westinghouse AP1000. China has the intellectual property rights. Is is quite likely that the CAP1400 will become the design of choice for new nuclear build in China and also the design of choice for the future export market.

  28. @Ronald Brak
    NEM prices are ‘wholesale’ in the sense of ex-busbar at the point of generation. If retail prices are what households pay then I’d call what businesses pay end-user or industrial prices. What gets added to the generation costs varies and includes transmission and markup. Households pay an mount to cover LGC costs then GST and carbon tax but business ABN holders don’t. Many industries like producers of shiny metal got >90%+ exempted from from carbon tax via free permits. The idea that subsidies lead to discounting of wholesale electricity prices has been alluded to for several years with both the German federal feed-in tariff and the US production tax credit. In eco-speak I believe it can be described as a form of dissipation of rent or frittering away an advantage. In other words a price that would make a loss absent the subsidy. If the LGC at the time was $40 per Mwh wind generators could discount $10-$30 and still be in front.

    If Cooper Basin gas goes full bore into Gladstone export LNG next year I think SA power prices be they retail, ex-generator-wholesale and industrial-customer-wholesale will go up 15%. Others say 25%. I’d bet London to a brick key gas users like AGL will do a dummy spit and ask Abbott to intervene. Sure nukes are expensive in capex terms but the fuel will be cheap (5% of costs) for the foreseeable future.

  29. Looking at UK home loans I see they are roughly around 4% at the moment. Let’s say 5% what with all the fees banks like to charge. So if an English homeowner can finance a rooftop solar system out of home equity and install at around the average Australian cost they will generate electricity at a lower cost than the minimum price of electricity from Hinkely C. And that’s before the costs of distribution are added on. At German installation costs solar electricity is considerably cheaper and there’s still maybe a decade for solar to come down further in price before any electricity is generated from Hinkley C. I’d call Hinkley C a white elephant except they only cost a fortune in sunscreen.

  30. @John,

    The announced 2019 strike prices for on-shore wind are similar to Hinkley C strike price. Any difference is neither here or there. However the total system cost WILL be higher due to the extra system costs of variable renewable capacity. Why do you never want to acknowledge this? Nobody seriously believes LCOE is the full story.

    On the other hand the announced 2019 strike price for off shore wind is higher than the DECC LCOE estimates.

    The all encompassing claim of renewables cheaper than nuclear is not supportable in the case of the UK.

  31. @rog,

    Paul Guilding is some sort of analyst at a small boutique fund manager in the City in London. Why he should be better informed than the Department of Energy and Climate Change is something of a mystery unless you count manifestly being anti-nuke as being informed.

    His claim about Hinkley C being the most expensive power plant in the world is twaddle. Take for example the Ivanpah concentrated solar power project in the US. Capital cost $2.2 billion, capacity 392 MW, capacity factor 31% giving which comes out at $18.1 billion per average GW power.

  32. @quokka

    Is the total system cost higher with variable generation of the renewable kind? Where is the proof of this? I think people making these claims are neglecting a lot of factors and probably quoting studies ten years out of date due to technological advances.


    (1) A widely distributed and varied renewable system evens out local peaks and troughs.
    (2) Even heavy “base load” plants (really “constant load” plants) can benefit from energy storage capacity in the grid. It can be cheaper to store energy rather than waste energy or power down large base-load generators. Thus the need for energy storage is not unique to renwables though the reasons for the need may be different.
    (3) Great advances are being made in energy storage with energy retention efficiencies of up to 99% (a reference to the energy retained by storing heat before turning it into electricity, versus converting heat directly into electricity).

  33. Quokka, I’m pretty sure if it’s possible to install solar on one’s roof right now and produce electricity at a lower cost than a new nuclear plant will sometime next decade, it means that solar is cheaper than new nuclear.

  34. @Ikonoclast

    Try this paper:

    “System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables?” by several researchers at the Potsdam-Institute for Climate Impact Research


    Levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) are a common metric for comparing power generating technologies. However, there is qualified criticism particularly towards evaluating variable renewables like wind and solar power based on LCOE because it ignores integration costs that occur at the system level. In this paper we propose a new measure System LCOE as the sum of generation and integration costs per unit of VRE. For this purpose we develop a conclusive definition of integration costs. Furthermore we decompose integration costs into different cost components and draw conclusions for integration options like transmission grids and energy storage. System LCOE are quantified from a power system model and a literature review. We find that at moderate wind shares (~20%) integration costs can be in the same range as generation costs of wind power and conventional plants. Integration costs further increase with growing wind shares. We conclude that integration costs can become an economic barrier to deploying VRE at high shares. This implies that an economic evaluation of VRE must not neglect integration costs. A pure LCOE comparison would significantly underestimate the costs of VRE at high shares. System LCOE give a framework of how to consistently account for integration costs and thus guide policy makers and system planers in designing a cost-efficient power system.

    Their estimates may be too high (or too low) but there are without any reasonable doubt costs to bear.

  35. I’m not sure how the nuclear boosters can square their costings with the likely impending renewable+storage actually becoming an option for people to go off grid.


    If that premise is becoming true at the retail level, then it’s game over for baseload and therefore nuclear.

    For countries like India that have not already invested in extensive (and VERY expensive) transmission, this will likely be even more attractive.

  36. @Will Boisvert
    “Chinese wind does not get 40 percent capacity factors.” Source? 40% is industry standard now for new turbines, mainly because of a shift in the ratio of rotor size to generator size, trading production time against peak output. Another few % are coming from better control automation (GE says up to 5% for retrofits). The Chinese are perfectly capable of doing this too.

    You get your high annual rates of nuclear starts in China by obvious cherry-picking of the start dates. Since the numbers are low, you have to take full years. 2011 is a series break because of Fukushima (March). So taking 12 month periods starting then, you have: 2011-12, 1 start, 2012-2013, 3 starts; 2013-14, 4 starts. Average 2.7 per year, increasing.

    Ten years: who was ever talking about decarbonisation of the incremental power generation summed over the next decade? That’s obviously impossible globally, though doable in the EU and the US. Reaching a crossover within 10 years, possible with luck and more effort than everybody outside Bhutan and Norway is making now.

    Le’s make a bet: the sums of the next three updates to Chinese generating targets will be static or upwards for wind and solar and static or down for nuclear. Loser pays €100 to Greenpeace.

  37. @quokka
    2019 is hardly the relevant date, as it’s impossible for Hinkley C to be online by then – it hasn’t cleared Brussels yet. 2025 would be lucky, with the experience of other EPRs and British management of large projects (improving but still not up to French).

    Grid integration costs: these vary a lot with geography and legacy equipment. For instance, Germany (the presumed subject of your unlinked and undated Potsdam study) has very little current or potential pumped storage; Britain has a lot of both, Japan much more. The Minnesota VOST includes very little for backup – the increase from the variability of more solar capacity must be balanced by the decrease from lower overall demand on the grid. Solar does not need the same grid backup as wind, and it will go down with behind-the-meter batteries. Tidal is cyclical but predictable on a scale of centuries. Geothermal, biomass and hydro are despatchable. If you have a time machine, please go back to 1960 and put the R&D money into geothermal.

    BTW, where are the fusion fanboys? Do they not exist?

  38. @James Wimberley

    1. 2019 IS the relevant date as there are no published strike prices for any further ahead. Contracts for wind power commissioning in 2019 will be for 15 years. Without perfect future knowledge we work with what we have and refrain from making stuff up. That includes commissioning date for Hinkley C. If you want future estimates then DECC has LCOE estimates for projects commissioning up until 2030. In all cases nuclear compares favourably on an LCOE basis.

    2. Britain does not have a lot of pumped storage and I’ve yet to see any plans for significant expansion.

    3. I provided more than enough information for you to locate the (2013) study from which I quoted the abstract. I do not post links here because they just get caught in moderation.

    4. Since when does solar (PV) not need backup? On many winter days in northern Europe, PV output can be less than 5% of nominal capacity at the best time of the day. You cannot possibly call that firm. See the German SMA solar site for confirmation. No amount of behind the meter batteries will ever deal with this awful seasonality.

    5. Tidal and all other marine sources are at best bit players. The best resource in the UK by far for tidal is the Severn Estuary. Much of the Severn Estuary is Ramsar listed and considered wetland of international importance. Ramsar is the only international convention in existence that protects a specific type of ecosystem namely wetlands. No retreat on conservation thank you, especially when the nearby Hinkley C will generate more electricity at much lower cost. All forms of marine energy remain expensive and immature.

    6. The much promised geothermal – essentially a bit player as well. The only possibility for geo to be any more is EGS (deep dry hot rock) and progress has been disappointing and is well short of betting the farm – just like fusion.

    All you have done is start from position that you do not like nuclear power (but do not articulate any reasons) then come up with a story – not an analysis but a story. We need more than stories.

  39. @ John Quiggin, on Strike Prices for British solar,

    Strike prices for “large” solar pv installations will fall to GBP 100/MWh in 2019, but that’s for utility-scale solar farms. Britain will likely see very few of those because paving over hundreds of square kilometers of farmland with pv panels would arouse intense political opposition. In fact, DECC has likely cut the strike price for utility solar in order to choke off such developments and stay out of that hornet’s nest. So the solar strike price is not a good measure of the comparative costs of solar and nuclear.

    Most of Britain’s solar will be rooftop PV, which comes under the microgeneration subsidy regime, not the strike-price scheme, which is strictly for utility-scale power. The solar microgen feed-in tariffs are dramatically higher than utility-scale strike-prices. In 2014, utility solar gets a strike price of GBP 120/MWh. But rooftop solar up to 4 kw, the bulk of it, gets a “feed-in” tariff of 149/MWh, a misnomer because that tariff is for “self-use” generation; the utility has to pay you that fee for every unit of electricity from your solar panels that you use in your own household! If you export the electricity to the grid, you get an additional FIT of 46/MWh on top of that, for a total of GBP 195/MWh—way higher than the strike prices for new nuclear and everything else except marine power.

  40. “Britain will likely see very few of those because paving over hundreds of square kilometers of farmland with pv panels would arouse intense political opposition”

    Isn’t this the kind of NIMBYism you regard as illegitimate when it’s put forward in opposition to nuclear? And of course, this kind of thing (backed up by nonsensical health claims) is far worse in relation to wind.

    But sure, if you rule out utility solar and onshore wind for political reasons, and tax carbon appropriately, nuclear starts to look appealing.

  41. The LFTR (Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor) is a Molten Salt Reactor with some significant inherent safety features and potential significant cost advantage (massively reduced scale for containment shell). A few years ago China started a program to develop LFTR into a commercial reality. They had a 25 year development time horizon. They recently announced they are brining the time horizon forward to 10 years.


  42. Will, following Ikonoklast’s post, I checked the Breakthrough Institute site and it appears you’re a fulltime employee there. I think that’s relevant for readers to know. If it’s incorrect, feel free to say so.

  43. @TerjeP Google suggests that this statement (from the researchers, not the government) may be more in the nature of a deadline to deliver or lose funding, rather than a realistic target date. A few months ago, it was reported that the completion date for the 2MW test reactor they are building had slipped from 2017 to 2020, which makes the achievement of a commercial reactor by 2025 look pretty much impossible


  44. Fair enough John, but you can’t harp on the political difficulty of building nukes in democracies and then wave away the similar political difficulties of wind and solar, which do arouse vehement NIMBY opposition and sticker-shock opposition from rate- and tax-payers. After all, if we could ignore anti-nuclear politics then we could just build old-model Gen II reactors for $1000 per kilowatt, which we did back in the day.

    And to be honest, I think NIMBY opposition to solar farms in Britain is pretty reasonable. A solar farm that could generate as much electricity as Hinkley C really would require covering up hundreds of square kilometers of farmland with solar panels, an industrial reengineering of the landscape that’s simply unprecedented. Solar farms are for deserts, not for Britain.

  45. “Will, following Ikonoklast’s post, I checked the Breakthrough Institute site and it appears you’re a fulltime employee there. I think that’s relevant for readers to know. If it’s incorrect, feel free to say so.”

    It’s incorrect John. It’s irrelevant, too. Feel free to fact-check personal accusations before you publically post them. Better still, feel free to argue the merits instead of the man.

  46. I once made the mistake of looking at the German energy issue on a year by year basis and in this article Will Boisvert is accused of doing the same.

    When it comes to cost, Boisvert, like most Americans, seems to consider all money spent on energy to be equal. Germans see the situation quite differently. A euro spent on electricity generated by traditional fuels such as nuclear and coal benefits a utility. But a euro spent on power generated by solar or wind enriches individuals and communities. This principle, known as democratizing energy, is a cornerstone of the Energiewende.

  47. @willboisvert

    I don’t agree that one can reduce the desire for transparency to ‘playing the man’. If your advocacy has a non-explicit and salient context, people relying on your claims are entitled to be aware of it.

    For example, I’ve spent the bulk of my life on what is widely reckoned to be the far left. I’ve never hidden that. I’m now a supporter of the Greens, which is a party of the liberal populist left. I haven’t hidden that either. Both theses things have shaped my views about nuclear power. The former predisposed me to neutrality, when I’d hitherto been hostile. The latter places me in an organisation that is deeply hostile whereas now I’m neutral. People an make of that what they will.

  48. @Will Boisvert

    I did not make accusations. I asked questions which deliberately and carefully were NOT couched in the form of accusations. I then made a factual statement of a thumbnail bio I found online.

    It is reasonable to ask for clarification where a pre-existing professional interest to promote something might exist. This is not “arguing the man”. We do it for example when we ask a financial advisor or broker if they get commissions for selling certain investment products to us.

    I will not raise this issue again as that would be “badgering”. You are free to answer or not answer the questions of course.

  49. @rog

    In a system of inclusive governance one would hope that the populace would make rational and well-informed choices about energy policy, but one is bound by support for inclusive governance to respect different weightings people may attach to cultural concerns. If people want, for some reason, to have a decentralised energy mix, and are happy with the package, then so be it.

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