Nuclear math doesn’t add up

Writing in the conservative US magazine National Review, Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute criticises the Democratic Party platform for omitting any mention of nuclear power, and accuses the Democrats of failing to “do the math”. Unfortunately, although he throws some numbers about, he doesn’t do any math to support his key conclusion

But even if we doubled the rate of growth for wind and solar — and came up with a perfect method of electricity storage (which of course, doesn’t exist) — those renewables aren’t going to replace nuclear energy any time soon

So, I’ll do the math for him.

Here’s the data Bryce supplies
* In 2015, America’s nuclear plants produced 839 terawatt-hours of electricity (this industry source says 798), compared to 253 for hydro, 193 for wind, and 39 for solar
* The current rate of growth is 7GW per year for wind, with output of 2.6 TWh/GW, and 5 GW per year of solar with output of 1.5 TWh/GW

That’s enough to check Bryce’s claim. The gap between nuclear and renewables is currently 552 TW/year. The current rate of addition of capacity for solar and wind combined amounts to additional generation 25.7 TW/h per year. Doubling that gives 51.4. So, assuming a doubling of the current installation rate, it would take 10.5 years for renewable generation (including hydro) to surpass nuclear. Excluding hydro it would take 15 years. So, if the goal of policy were to replace nuclear with renewables, the answer is that it could be achieved in the fairly near future.

Of course, replacing nuclear power is not the goal of climate policy. The objective is to replace coal and, as far as possible, gas as sources of electricity.

So,Bryce is right to say that ““widespread retirement of America’s nuclear power plants would make it extremely difficult if not impossible”. If we didn’t know that a rapid shutdown of nuclear power would be a big problem for a decarbonization policy, the examples of Germany and Japan make it pretty clear.

But Bryce is shifting the ground. he fact that The Democratic platform says nothing about nuclear power implies that they don’t have a policy for a rapid shutdown. In fact, the Obama Administration has consistently supported an “all of the above” policy including loan guarantees for nuclear power.

The problem is that new nuclear power is hopelessly uneconomic, and even existing plants are finding it hard to cover their costs. Bryce doesn’t propose a solution, presumably because any solution would require government intervention on a scale so massive as to horrify the readers of National Review.

Still, it might be worth looking at the possibilities for an expansion of US nuclear power in the foreseeable future. Apart from a handful of plants under construction there’s no chance of any new ones in the 10-15 year time-frame we just derived. So, let’s look out a bit further to the early 2030s. On past experience would require starting construction by 2020, which means we can confine our attention to proposals that have already started the licensing process.

In the first flush of enthusiasm for the “nuclear renaissance” of the early 2000s, proposals were put forward to build around 30 new units, typically of 1 GW each. Four of those have gone ahead (over time and over budget as usual), and should be completed by 2020. At least ten have been abandoned, while the remainder are in limbo, being kept alive as options but without any actual prospect of occurring. That’s a maximum of around 15 GW, or around 100 TWh per year.

The new additions have already been offset by closures. Even with the most friendly policy environment possible, we’re bound to see more over the next 15 years, given that many plants are already well beyond their initially planned operating life.

So, even with an all-out effort to implement every currently proposed nuclear power plant, and to keep closures to a minimum, we might get a net addition of 50TWh a year. That’s the equivalent of two years of additional solar and wind at the current rate, which has been increasing steadily over time.

* For completeness, I should mention Small Modular Reactors, which are often seen as the nuclear hope of the future. The only project that’s currently active is that of Nuscale which aims to produce a demonstration plant by 2025. Even if SMRs prove economic (there is no reason to believe this), large scale deployment will be well into the 2030s.

112 thoughts on “Nuclear math doesn’t add up

  1. The arguments over nukes are not based simply on economics.

    Only economic systems based on private competition argue for cheap and nasty processes.

    Slavery, Dickenesque conditions, sweatshops, fossil fuels and now nukes are all part of this pattern.

    It is the system of private competition that is demanding both fossil fuels and nukes (plus delivering economic and ecological catastrophe).

    Exactly what do you think would be the consequences if some military power bombs any number of nuclear power stations or reprocessing centres compared to bombing a solar farm or wind farm or liquid salt storage facility.

  2. @Ivor

    I agree. Also, I think there is something revealed by the psychological and ideological preference for concentrated power. The preference for concentrated physical energy generation originally had significant physical and economic determinants and thus rationales at these levels (although these weren’t the only reasons for such preferences even then). These basic determinants were issues of economies of scale and large costs of entry due to needs for large concentrations of capital equipment (powerhouses and reactors). These married nicely into established capital’s actual, practical preference for monopoly power despite it’s virtuous claims to care about free markets and fair competition. Concentrated physical power also suits militaristic, imperial and general elite domination aims (over foreigners and over the domestic population).

    The progress of solar power (especially solar PV) and of wind power changes the physical power generation concentration or distribution equation. The relatively seamless scalability of these solutions from micro, to meso, to macro generation and the compressing of the cost differentials of economies of scale (albeit not their entire disappearance), means many medium to small producers and prosumers are enabled or made viable. The desire to become energy independent can even be chosen over pure economic (cost) considerations. The spreading of the capacity to generate power, allowing smaller communities, families and individuals to become once again cooperatives (when more than one) or owner-producers challenges the capitalist stranglehold on at least one means of production, the means of production of primary energy for useful work.

    To put it simply, the viability of distributed and micro generation of power (an internet of physical power to match the current internet of knowledge, communication and information) is a development which contains a quintessentially socialistic embryo. This is entirely in line with Marx’s induction of dialectical materialism following his “inversion” of Hegelian philosophy. The progress of the distribution of physical (material) power may proceed and induce the progress of the fairer distribution of economic, social and political power back to the common people.

    This is really why traditional right wingers as supporters of concentrated capital fight so hard against renewable, distributed energy and are so much in favour of concentrated fossil and nuclear energy. They intuit correctly that keeping ordinary people short of physical power over which they have direct control themselves correlates very well with keeping them short of social and political power and subservient to the massed power of late stage monopoly capital. The psychological aspect is that people in favour of large power concentrations enjoy amassing wealth only for themselves and enjoy using their power and dominating, hurting and subjugating other people. These are the real reasons behind the unhealthy fascination with large power concentrations like nuclear power and the preference for them over more efficient, more environmentally viable and distributed means of generating power.

    Nothing else can really explain the preference of those, who are otherwise advocates of free markets, for highly subsidised concentrations of power which are inefficient and environmentally destructive. It’s all about the maintenance of existing political power relations and not about real economics at all. By “real economics” I mean an approach which takes seriously the need for the well-being of all people and the preservation of the environment for both human needs and other values intrinsic to general biological nature itself.

    The “competition of capitals” is playing a role in generating the potential to escape from concentrated fossil and nuclear capital domination. Entrepreneurial and small “new capitalists” want to and are operating to out-compete the old concentrated fossil and nuclear capitalists. Whilst creating “socialist” opportunities they do themselves naturally attempt to replace the old monopoly capitalists as new monopoly capitalists in their own right. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are two good examples. Proponents of socialism need to recognise both opportunities for socialist change inherent in these processes and the dangers of monopoly capital recreating itself in a new guise, under a new generation of innovative capitalists, aided and abetted by the current “institutions of capitalism”, those legal laws (as opposed to say system-developmental laws) which function to facilitate the continual recreation of capitalist relations.

  3. @Joris van Dorp

    I’ll take this, if I may.

    At a U3O8 price of about US$25/pound the raw material cost of the uranium to produce electricity in a nuclear reactor is about US$0.001/kWh. If uranium is extracted from seawater, the price would be ten times more, so the raw material cost of nuclear electricity would be US$0.01 per kWh.

    In other words, shifting to ocean uranium extraction would raise the cost of nuclear power by less than 1 ct/kWh.

    I think that is what Mark Pawalek means when he says that uranium can be economically extracted from seawater.

    Of course it’s true that fuel cost is a relatively small factor in the economics of nuclear energy. However, you’ve missed the point of that particular exchange.

    The problem is, Mark Pawalek has also said that the technology necessary to manufacture the absorbent material does not yet exist. So it can’t currently be deployed at a commercial scale, at any price. Given that fact, all the cost estimates are irrelevant speculation.

  4. @Mark Pawelek

    I don’t consider it that wonderful. After we develop the thorium fuel cycle we will not even need seawater extraction. I brought it up to refute an earlier claim that peak uranium was only a few decades away.

    Given you’re obsessed about it I’ll consider the relationship (or lack of) between the price of uranium and the long-term future of nuclear power.

    Mark, once again you appear to be imagining thing that commenters might have said, rather than reading what they actually wrote. I haven’t mentioned or even alluded to the price of uranium. I merely pointed out that your claim about uranium seawater extraction being economically viable was obviously wrong.

    You seem to have indirectly conceded that point, and have instead immediately segued to another experimental nuclear technology, the thorium fuel cycle. From your comment it appears that you are boundlessly optimistic about the future development of the thorium cycle as well.

    Once again, I have to ask, why the double standard in your attitude to experimental nuclear technologies and experimental renewable and storage ones?

    Your link to the booster-ish 2012 article about developments in seawater extraction technology is a case in point. How is that article different in substance from any number of articles hailing the development of, say, solar-thermal-with-storage technologies that are said to be on the cusp of commercial viability? What is the basis for your insistence that the renewables and storage technologies will all come to nothing, whereas the nuclear ones will inevitably succeed? I’m genuinely curious.

  5. @Ikonoclast wants us to read:

    NUCLEAR POWER: Still Not Viable without Subsidies”. It is hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, UCSc, who are a group of dedicated anti-nuclear power campaigners. They have always opposed every nuclear power development under any possible pretext. Written by economist Doug Koplow. I’m not surprised they published a report which declared nuclear power not economically viable.

    This comes back to the main problem with anti-nukes such as @Iconoclast. They are misinformed because they cherry pick evidence only from nuclear power critics such as, self-styled, environmentalists like UCSc. Yet these green anti-nukes, already decided, beforehand they wanted to deindustrialize. Their anti-nuclear power arguments are a byproduct of a more fundamental anti-technology, anti-industrial, and anti-modernity world-view. Because @Iconoclast only ever looked at the anti-nuke evidence, s/he has no real clue what the real consequences of energy policies advocated by deep greens will be. We can deindustrialize, but it will lead to more resource wars, misery, poverty and environmental destruction.

    PS: Nuclear power is the safest, cleanest, most efficient, energy source with the lowest environmental footprint. Invoking externalities of nuclear power against it is a particularly warped argument. The externalities all all other power sources are worse than nuclear power.

  6. “I hope you follow up, research it and think about it.”

    Dear “Ikonoclast” it is you who needs to research and think about this.

    Fossil fuels globally provide $800 billion in tax revenues and royalties. That’s real money in the bank, which can be spent at will by governments to finance education, health, public infrastructure, and renewable energy.

    Renewables globally provide NO tax revenues and NO royalities.

    Discussing the issue of energy subsidies without including the public revenues generated by fossils versus renewables is misleading.

    You can write a million words about why public revenues from fossil fuel saves are irrelevant, but you are only fooling yourself.

    I hold and MSc engineering title and I have more than a decade experience as an analyst in the energy sector.

    What do you bring to the table? You’re not even ready to use your real name! Do you even have an education?

  7. Getting back to your original critique of me:

    According to the ordinary understanding of “economically viable”, your statement was clearly wrong.

    You never gave us a common ‘ordinary understanding of “economically viable”‘. Please refer to the definition you accept. Supply a source and a link to it. Then we have a discussion.

    Continuing this discussion with you is like pushing on a string because. At any moment you might change the meaning of what you understand by the ‘ordinary understanding of “economically viable”‘.

  8. @Mark Pawelek

    Narrow economic viability at the enterprise level means that business operations are sustainable (profitable) with respect to current and projected costs and revenues.

    Broad national or global economic viability, in the long term, would mean that national economic operations are sustainable with respect to resource supplies and waste sinks such that a sustaining, liveable environment is retained so human needs can be met equitably enough to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of individual ends while maintaining social cohesion and cooperation.

    Nuclear power fails on all counts. It is not economically viable without large subsidies. It is not renewable. It is not safe. It is not scaleable in time to prevent serious global warming.

  9. @Joris van Dorp

    “Renewables globally provide NO tax revenues and NO royalities.”

    Since you have made this claim without caveats, one counter-example will sink it.

    “The New York Power Authority (NYPA), officially the Power Authority of the State of New York, is the largest state public power organization in the United States. NYPA provides some of the lowest-cost electricity in the nation, operating 16 generating facilities and more than 1,400 circuit-miles of transmission lines. Its main administrative offices are in White Plains.

    NYPA uses no state tax dollars and incurs no state debt, financing its projects principally through the sale of bonds. The bonds are repaid and the projects operated using revenues from operations.

    State and federal regulations determine NYPA’s customer base, which includes large and small businesses, not-for-profit organizations, public power systems and government agencies. NYPA also sells electricity to private utilities for resale (without profit) to their customers, and to neighboring states, under federal requirements. Approximately 70 percent of the electricity NYPA produces is clean renewable hydropower. Its lower-cost power production and electricity purchases support hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout New York State.” – Wikipedia.

    “Legislation enacted into law, as part of the 2000-2001 State budget, as amended up to the present time, has authorized the Authority as deemed feasible and advisable by the trustees, to make a series of voluntary contributions into the State treasury in connection with the PFJ Program and for other purposes as well. The PFJ Program, which had been extended to June 30, 2012, has ended and was replaced by the RNYPP, as discussed above in note 11(a) “Recharge New York Power Program” of the notes to the financial statements. Cumulatively through December 31, 2012, the Authority has made voluntary contributions to the State totaling $475 million in connection with the ended PFJ Program.” – NYPA 2014 Annual Report.

    In summary;

    1. The NYPA makes 70% of its power from hydro (renewable).
    2. The NYPA makes contributions to the State (New York State).
    3. Just one program mentioned above involved a contribution of $475 million.

    There are also many programs where NYPA gives subsidised power to country users “upstate”. This is a contribution which assists those people and the state.

  10. @Mark Pawelek
    Mark, if you’ve read my comments you’ll know that I did explain what I meant by “economically viable”. This is the third time now you’ve taken issue with something that you apparently imagined I said, rather than what I actually said. it’s also the second time now you appear to have avoided answering my question: why the divergence between your optimism about experimental nuclear technologies, and your pessimism about experimental renewable and energy storage technologies?

  11. Nuclear power fails on all counts. It is not economically viable without large subsidies. It is not renewable. It is not safe. It is not scaleable in time to prevent serious global warming.

    You have it backwards. Nuclear is eminently viable, it is renewable, and it is the safest of all energy sources. It is historically the fastest zero-carbon energy source. (France went to 80% nuclear within two decades and has the cheapest electricity in Europe at the same time)


    Ikonoclast :
    @Joris van Dorp
    “Renewables globally provide NO tax revenues and NO royalities.”
    Since you have made this claim without caveats, one counter-example will sink it.

    Hydro is good if it’s available. No problem with that. My comments are directed at the unreliable renewables wind and solar, which you well know.

    RE boosters always do this. When they realise that wind and solar are dead in the water, they quickly switch to hydro in order to pretend that since hydro is renewable, all renewables are like hydro. Typical propagandist tactic.

    I’m done with this discussion. Be warned that “Ikonoclast” is probably a troll. All the telltale signs.

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