Flogging the dead horse of nuclear power

As I anticipated, my post on Tesla’s new battery provoked some pretty hostile responses, most notably from pro-nuclear diehards. I’ve written plenty on this (use the search facility), so rather than repeat myself I’ll make an observation drawing on the previous post.

Ten years ago, solar PV was a faintly hopeful technologica prospect, making a minuscule contribution to electricity generation. Today, it’s a reality that is creating massive disruption for electricity utilities around the world. As I said in the previous post, the availability of even moderately cost-effective storage removes the last big obstacle (more on the economics soon)

By contrast, ten years ago, nuclear energy was a mature technology which seemed to be at the beginning of a renaissance. Today it’s further away, in almost every respect, than it was in 2005. Construction times have blown out, costs have turned out to be twice as high or more than expected, the operating record (thanks to Fukushima) is far worse, and the various new technologies (SMRs, Gen IV) have receded even further.

None of this means that the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables+storage is going to happen under current policy settings. But such a replacement is now clearly feasible, much faster, more reliably and at much lower cost, than attempting to reboot the failed nuclear renaissance.

Backing the nuclear horse was a reasonable choice in 2005. But it’s dead, and flogging it won’t revive it.

96 thoughts on “Flogging the dead horse of nuclear power

  1. @Donald Oats
    Without a long running, cross partisan commitment to climate and emissions reductions a vanity nuclear project is the most that could be expected in Australia. It would probably be well away from the coal rich regions, ie not actually intended to displace fossil fuels – only to displace renewables. In the current political reality it would not be so much symbolic of a commitment to climate as divisive and diversionary, probably pushed along with a strong ‘stick it to greenies’ motivation.

  2. @Donald Oats

    Agreed, the political class would want nuclear power only for its potential role in making us a nuclear weapons state. Going down that path would provoke Indonesia into getting wepoans nukes. That would be a very bad idea. That said, Indonesia does already have an experimental reactor program with maybe some power generation reactors in the pipeline.

    But nuclear power is a dead horse. The facts demonstrate that. J.Q, has laid out the economic argument well and a number of times.

  3. Short memories seem to have forgotten two major developments; the fact that some big coal firms say they getting out in the next 20 years and the probable doubling of the east Australian gas price in the next 5 years. Neither development is contingent on the RET or carbon tax. Currently about half the opex of combined cycle gas plant is gas fuel cost. The probable increase will make nuclear competitive if you look at the predicted prices on BREE’s AETA report linked upthread.

    Energy storage at Powerwall prices is too expensive for commercial operators. Since published estimates range from 15c to 35c per kwh call it 25c or or $250 per Mwh. A wind farm that has generation costs of say $80 per Mwh must then store it for another $250. The combined cost is ten times more than Latrobe Valley brown coal electricity at $32 a Mwh.

    Non fossil interests would be helped with the re-introduction of a properly determined price on primary emissions, not the silliness in Direct Action. I fear all else is wishful thinking. It looks like our 2015 coal emissions will be higher than 2014 for whatever reasons. If it happens again for a few more years perhaps we should think harder about our assumptions.

  4. @Hermit

    The probable increase will make nuclear competitive if you look at the predicted prices on BREE’s AETA report linked upthread.


    Strangely enough, the BREE report also shows that the “probable increase” will also make wind, solar PV and solar thermal competitive as well, particularly wind (even taking into account the fact that the report has taken a conservative view of the potential cost declines for renewable energy, and has not factored in the insurance cost disadvantage of nuclear). I wonder why you didn’t mention that.

    Non fossil interests would be helped with the re-introduction of a properly determined price on primary emissions, not the silliness in Direct Action. I fear all else is wishful thinking. It looks like our 2015 coal emissions will be higher than 2014 for whatever reasons.

    Yes, that is true. Without an effective emissions reduction policy framework, we are stuck with coal for some time, and will be unable to significantly reduce emissions. Of course, that is irrelevant to the question of the comparative prospects of renewables and nuclear, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    If it happens again for a few more years perhaps we should think harder about our assumptions.

    Indeed you should.

  5. “super-effiecient GM carbon sucking trees”??? That is hilarious! On so many levels!

  6. Reminds me of that old joke where engineers and scientists spent $100b inventing a new device that collects solar energy, captures CO2, is self generating, can be used for heating and construction, reduces drought, regulates temperature and humidity and looks great in an urban environment. They named it the Total Renewable Energy Enterprise, or TREE for short.

  7. Braziiam commercial foresters (in the south and planalto, not the Amazon) already plant hybrid (conventionally bred not GM) eucalyptus on an eight-year cycle. It goes into pulp for paper, so the carbon sequestration is quite short-term. Commercial forestry only becomes a net long-term sequestrator if the wood is harvested as timber and used in construction and furniture, with a 100-year lifespan. Laminated wood beams – they can even be prestressed – are a significant innovation here, as they allow wood-framed structures up to six storeys high, which covers most commercial and residential uses. The lamination allows for factory manufacture and standard sizes, like steel. Wood frames are lighter than steel or reinforced concrete, so you get a second carbon benefit from lighter foundations.

    My Brazilian wife and I are supporting a small 1000-tree planting project in her home town in up-country Rio de Janeiro state. Native Mata Atlantica species suitable for timber, on a 40-year horizon. Why complicate such straightforward initiatives with GM?

  8. > Why complicate such straightforward initiatives with GM?

    “Because old technology doesn’t give scope for kickbacks” is a significant effect, at least.

  9. @TM while the AETA report does exclude insurance in the US it is expected that $10-15 bn liability cover can be had for 0.1-0.2c a kwh. Hardly a crippling impost. The AETA report also appears to exclude renewable subsidies such as the LGC of around 4c per kwh, feed-in tariffs or the large grants which reduce cost of capital.

    A glaring omission is tabled capacity factors for different technologies. Arid outback solar might produce 20% of its rated power on a year round basis and new wind sites with large turbines 30-40%. At night for solar and unpredictable times for wind they will produce no power which is why they need gas, hydro and now apparently coal for backup. Nukes should generate power at 90% of capacity on a year round basis and are a full replacement for coal, our highest emitting power source.

  10. Hermit, it may be a fact that some coal companies say they will get out of coal in 20 years but that does not mean they won’t be spending the next 20 years lobbying tirelessly against policies intended to make that happen – and if their mines can be kept profitable beyond that they may be open to withdrawing a thought bubble intended to suggest they care. Those making that statement will have retired very rich before then and getting out of coal won’t happen on their watch.

    In the meantime, in the presence of strong political support for their continuing coal operations, the timeline may better reflect an intention to mine as much of the most profitable reserves within that 20 years as possible without any genuine commitment or even desire to limit climate change.

    I still think the greatest boost nuclear could get is the Conservative Right getting serious about climate – the withdrawal of their climate science denial justified ‘get out of having to deal with climate change free’ card to commerce and industry would spur that sector to stop saying they would prefer nuclear to renewables (but not over cheap coal), to saying they prefer nuclear to coal, and start to actually push for it. But I also think it’s too late – nuclear will struggle to gain the minimum threshold of support, even from a commerce and industry denied the Right’s climate denial inspired do nothing option.

  11. @Hermit
    The capacity factor doesn’t affect the levelised cost, so there was no need to include it.
    You’re right that renewable subsidies were also left out. But the report still shows they are competitive with nuclear, so it hardly helps your argument. More Gish galloping.

  12. TM without storage solar is not competitive with anything at night so perhaps sunny daytime costs aren’t the full story.

    It’s odd the British Conservatives are not just pro-nuclear in lip service but also anti-coal in practice. They don’t seem to align that well with our LNP. The Brits will build 4-6 new reactors with the expensive Hinkley C to possibly be replaced with a cheaper Chinese design. If elections can be taken as a policy endorsement it seems Aussies don’t like carbon pricing but Brits support their version, the contract-for-difference. If the EU rules against c.f.d. I wonder if the Brits will continue with it anyway.

  13. @Fran Barlow
    Hi Fran,
    You seem to have changed from being a passionate advocate for nuclear power (even after Fukushima) to a very lukewarm fence sitter. Congratulations on your journey.
    I am totally convinced that the next step forward in the provision of electrical services will be storage at the point of consumption (APC).
    Properly configured it will provide a constant load to the energy source. If this source is located on site it will allow the energy needs to be supplied from this source. PV is a prime candidate, but we should all be aware that PV will not be able to supply significant energy for about 4 weeks per year at almost any latitude.
    A number of consumers connected together the energy storage at the point of consumption will flatten the demand and open up the possibility for export to other consumers.
    The consequences for the domestic and industrial consumers will be revolutionary and will require a re-think of the entire electricity supply system.

  14. Let me get this right, one throwaway line mention of biotech as part of the mix of climate change solutions and Tim and Tom decide I’m probably a banned sockpuppet. You people need to adjust your tinfoil hats. I think I’ve made it cleat that I am pro-tech futurist on a left where pro-tech and futurism is now considered dangerous and radical.

    BTW, battery innovator Elon Musk is behind SpaceX. SpaceX along with another futurist billionaire boy’s toy company, Planetary Resources, are paving the way for asteroid mining.

    Just like Marx would have expected if he were still alive today, it is the capitalist innovation machine that is paving the way for our socialist post-scarcity future.

    Climb on board comrades, we’re in for one helluva century ….

  15. Coal’s charmed run for over a century here and two centuries in the old world may be coming to end. Not the digging up and burning so much as the benign PR. We’ve had reef dredging and dairy farms demolished. Now a property which was the subject of a book on organic farming methods is to make way for coal mining
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-11/hopes-tarwyn-park-natural-sequence-farming-methods-to-continue/6459040
    Surely the day is fast approaching when enough is enough. However we need to be real about what can replace coal i.e. affordable all weathers around the clock power.

  16. Surely the day is fast approaching when enough is enough. However we need to be real about what can replace coal i.e. affordable all weathers around the clock power.

    As the previous post mentioned, the combination of new renewables and storage fits the bill, especially with hydro as backup.

  17. Pr Q your last statement seems hard to justify. Hydro while possibly the best backup for intermittent power is maxed out in Australia and facing an El Nino. I note the Burdekin hydro project which claims to be a victim of the RET is only 37 MW when eastern Australia needs a minimum 38,000 MW generation capacity according to AEMO.

    One of your own links (Forbes.. Powerwall a toy for rich greens) gives a levelised cost figure for battery storage which is commercially unviable. In 2013 wind and solar gave us 4.4% of Australian electricity and since then the new build rate has nosedived. This explains why coal is not going away in Australia.

  18. @Hermit

    And I am guessing that in 1908 cars only transported 4% of the people and goods that horses transported. This proved why horses were never going away as our main form of tranport.

  19. More in this vein. A baby is only 5% or less than the weight of an adult. This proves why a baby can never become an adult.

  20. Hermit your figures are out.

    renewable energy 2013 to 2014 were

    Wind energy 3.93%
    solar 1.62
    Bio fuel 1.02
    solar hot water 1.12
    Hydro 8.2

    For a total 16% renewable electricity (electricity equivalent)

  21. A realistic aim: total replacement of Australia’s current electricity generation by (very) low emission technology within two decades. Not wishful thinking, its been done and can be replicated here. See excellent recent paper in PLoS ONE.

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