Nuclear starts stop

A steady stream of negative evidence hasn’t shaken the faith of believers in nuclear energy. Many of them are under the impression that the failure of nuclear energy is specific to the developed world, where some combination of environmentalism and NIMBYism prevents the adoption of an obviously sensible solution. It is widely imagined that China, India and other countries are forging ahead. This idea was plausible until fairly recently, but the latest evidence suggests that nuclear power is in terminal decline. Globally, only four nuclear plants commenced construction between 1 January 2016 and 30 JUne 2017. China hasn’t started any new plants this year and is sure to miss the 58GW target set for 2020.

The problem, simply, is that while China’s problems with delays and cost overruns have been less severe than those in the developed world, the same patterns are evident. New nuclear plants simply can’t compete with renewables.

I don’t expect that this will have the slightest impact on the Australian and US right, who have long since ceased to regard evidence as relevant to anything. But, for anyone who is still open to evidence, this debate ought to be over.

40 thoughts on “Nuclear starts stop

  1. Leaving aside the health effects, the disasters had a big impact on the economics of nuclear power. A dozen or so plants destroyed or ultimately shut down, huge cleanup costs and expensive extra safety for new plants.

  2. @derrida derider
    My comment has vanished, but I read you clearly. You mentioned the public, but ignored nuclear workers, who count. IIRC several died at Chernobyl, and at Fukushima a fair number have reached the quite high dosage limit, suggesting risks in future.

  3. Nuclear can be part of the base-load mix and comparisons with solar and wind on sunny days with wind are not reasonable unless battery storage costs come down markedly. Australia has abundant nuclear resources and easily available waste disposal facilities. At low-interest rates, the capital costs are not insurmountable though high. It is a very safe technology and with plants in each state there are huge learning-by-doing gains in developing multiple projects sequentially. Reasonable outcomes probably won’t happen because of the anti-nuclear stance of the ideologically fossilized left. So probably let’s settle on natural gas as an intermediate technology and get the idiotic States to approve gas projects. Bored with Aussi political dogmatism that lacks perspective.

  4. @hc
    “won’t happen because of the anti-nuclear stance of the ideologically fossilized left.”

    And also won’t happen because of the anti-climate action stance of the ideologically fossilized right. The most substantial bloc of support – or tolerance – for nuclear is within conservative right politics, but it cannot be mobilised in any useful way because of their ideologically fossilised stance on fossil fuels, emissions and climate.

    We will never have nuclear in Australia as long as the most nuclear “friendly” major party has the antithetical priorities of NOT fixing the climate problem and protecting fossil fuels.

  5. It’s too late for nuclear in Australia or anywhere else. Without a carbon price, it can’t beat coal. With or without a carbon price, it can’t beat renewables+storage.

    The idea that the “ideologically fossilized left” is the main obstacle is long out of date. It wasn’t the left who caused the VC Summer plant in the US to be abandoned after billions of dollars had already been spent, or led China to fall short of its targets. It was the fact that nuclear power is uneconomic.

  6. It looks like new nuclear requires around 20 cents or more per kilowatt-hour to be built in the UK and the US and Australia certainly has no magic pixie dust we can sprinkle on a nuclear project to guarantee we can complete it for less that that.

    If the Kidston pumped hydro being built in Queensland comes in at $800 per kilowatt then presumably the cost of storage will come to less than a couple of cents per kilowatt-hour, although a lot will depend on the cost of capital and its utilization factor.

    At least one Purchase Price Agreement for wind has been signed for under 6 cents per kilowatt-hour in Australia and utility scale solar is falling rapidly in price, and the cost of distributed solar is continuing to decline.

    So nuclear power in Australia really makes no sense at all.

    The coal Northern Power Station in South Australia needed to average around 5 cents per kilowatt-hour to stay open and couldn’t manage that, so what chance does nuclear have of getting its 20? At the moment wholesale electricity prices are through the roof, but 9 cents is still less than 20 and wholesale prices aren’t going to remain this high as renewable capacity is expanded.

  7. @Hal9000
    It’s not inevitable that workers have to die to build large civil engineering projects. The great Millau viaduct in France, with piers higher than the Eiffel Tower, cost zero lives. Builders Eiffage, the descendants of Gustave.

  8. PS: the Millau viaduct was also built on time and to budget. This may have been helped that the start of construction was held up after award of the contract by political negotiations over the financing, so Eiffage had extra time for planning it right.

  9. The day conservative right gets serious about climate and carbon pricing will be the day renewable energy gets the backing it needs to be built at the scales it needs; perhaps with some face saving push for a vanity nuclear plant on the side. Nuclear’s golden moment was, depending on your POV, either unfortunately squandered in the scramble to do the least on emissions that could be gotten away with or fortunately avoided by renewables being given enough rope and unexpectedly using it to pull themselves into viability.

    Nuclear in the mouths of Australian politicians has never been sincerely about better climate and emissions outcomes – it’s been about blaming ‘green’ politics for the choices and commitments mainstream politicians would (and wouldn’t) have made anyway. I suspect nuclear-is-best rhetoric is primarily intended for internal consumption, aimed at those within the conservative right who think climate and emissions are indeed issues of real significance but who need someone else to blame for their own unwillingness to do anything about it.

  10. The current estimated total cost of the Hinkley C nuclear power plant in the UK is now around $34 billion Australian. The cost of additional gas generating capacity to provide enough dispatchable power to allow renewable energy to completely replace coal generation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector by perhaps 94% might only be $4 billion.

  11. @James Wimberley
    Oops. Couldn’t get the post to submit, it seems. I was just going to agree that, of course, it is possible to build complex engineering safely. The Snowy Mountains scheme was so terribly unsafe for several reasons, but primarily because the contractors were paid large bonuses for finishing work ahead of schedule and huge penalties for late work. The workforce was largely foreign (chiefly former Axis soldiers) and ununionised. The saddest thing of all for me, though, is that all that engineering expertise so dearly bought has been frittered away by governments over the last twenty-five years through privatisations and getting rid of government functions.

  12. OT, but the other thing about the Snowy was lots of drill-and-blast hard rock tunnelling – a notoriously dangerous way to dig, especially if you’re in a hurry. These days you’d certainly use TBMs – a little slower, but requiring far less people in the tunnel.

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