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. The report says four: in 2016, two in China and one in Pakistan; in H1 2017, one in India. The chances of the Indian one ever entering service must be minimal. The Pakistan one is Chinese-built.

    Fully agree with the argument. I wonder if Will Boisvert will show up. I get the impression that the ranks of the nuclear fans are thinning, especially those who know something.

  2. Political opposition to nuclear plants might be overcome if the industry was able to get a handle on the costs of constructing and refurbishing them. But it doesn’t seem to be able to. Add to this the staggering costs of catastrophic failures such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, over US$400 billion between them, and the industry finds itself deep in a hole of its own making.

    And yes, inherently safe, low-cost uranium or thorium reactors look wonderful on paper as low-carbon energy sources, but the difficulties of building them have been greatly underestimated.

  3. Magma – it’s not just about opposition; the ability to mobilise support for them is hampered by the wide overlap of anti-climate action and anti-environmentalism sentiment with nuclear’s existing (and potentially significant) support base.

    The key to campaigning for nuclear is climate risks and advocacy of carbon pricing, not economic alarmist fears of renewable energy. Even those with strong climate concerns who favour nuclear can’t see the prominent proponents of nuclear as offering any way forward – in the Australian context they are almost always climate science and climate action opponents. Such as Craig Kelly, Ian MacDonald, Barnaby Joyce, Tony Abbott, John Howard, etc. A vote for them and their ilk on the basis of their support for more effective emissions reductions through nuclear looks unlikely to deliver anything but more coal and gas.

  4. @Ken Fabian don’t forget anti-aboriginal as well. That’s sadly important only as an aside, but it is still important.

    I think Ranger was really a marker post for the pro-nuclear side, establishing them as not affected at all by environmental or social considerations (or even international reputation ones). I find it alternately terrifying and amusing how attached to Ranger many pro-nuke folk are. It seems to be a symbol for them of how far Australia will go to support the nuclear industry.

  5. According to newmatilda dot com.

    “In a letter sent late March (2016), a group of more than 50 civil society groups spelled out the savings they believe could be made if the government winds back subsidies to the industries which are fuelling climate change. They urged the government to:

    ● End non­agricultural fuel tax credits, boosting the budget by $5.5 billion in 2016­/17

    ● End exploration and prospecting deductions for the mining industry ($650m)

    ● End statutory effective life caps for the oil and gas sector ($349m)

    ● End the concessional rate of excise levied on aviation gasoline and aviation turbine fuel ($1.24b)

    ● Confirm that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will not invest in fossil fuel projects or in infrastructure that primarily assists such projects” – End of Quote.

    It’s clear that we are not serious about increasing renewable energy use and preventing climate change until we end these (and other) very large subsidies for fossil fuel use. Sadly, it seems real change will not come about until climate change damage becomes a clear and present danger on a wide scale. What will it take? I guess half of the world’s arboreal forests will have to burn, the peat marches dry and burn, the Amazon forests disappear, the arctic become ice fee, the permafrost melt and here in Australia, the top half become so hot in the wet season (see “wet bulb temperature and human survival”) it is virtually uninhabitable by humans. Maybe all that will prove convincing to those dunces in Canberra.

  6. @Ikonoclast
    Those are just the overt subsidies and supports – there is still the de-facto subsidy from the ongoing amnesty on externalised costs. It may always be impossible to put a hard number on what that subsidy will cost over the lifetime of the raised atmospheric GHG content but low end estimates, of $35 per tonne of eCO2 add around $100 to a tonne of “clean… err” Australian black coal.

    There can’t be any enduring energy policy certainty that does not recognise that the climate and emissions issues are not going to ever go away. Not ever in the lifetimes of any Australians now living. The real world impacts of climate change will bring the issue back again and again – until and unless we have policy genuinely aimed at ramping emissions reductions down to (true) low emissions and beyond that towards zero and negative. emissions.

  7. I wish people would use the more accurate “Clayton’s title” (or “certificate of recognition of interest in land”) instead of that term. It offends me that we have a similar label for something that’s got none of the features of an actual property title. I realise it’s done deliberately to mislead, but that doesn’t make it less offensive.

    If you want to talk about obvious “externalities” we could talk about the Great Barrier Reef. Removing it will make coal mining easier (a beneficial side effect of burning the coal), but it’s going to have some kind of impact on tourism income I would think. Pricing that into coal extraction would change the economics of the coal ecosystem.

  8. I am reading Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. It’s a must read for anybody considering nuclear power as a viable option. The incident at Chernobyl was so catastrophic that it should spelt the end of nuclear power. Prior to the explosion, the USSR prided itself on the safety of its civilian nuclear power industry. The west was happy to dismiss Chernobyl as a symptom of a sclerotic economic system and said “Japan has a vibrant nuclear power industry and its one of the most earthquake susceptibile countries in the world”. The we had the tragic events of Fukushima. Taken together, Chrebnobyl and Fukushima have been so catastrophic that they should put an end to nuclear power as a viable alternative to coal powe (then there’s the obvious economic issue). Chernobyl could have been a lot worse too and we were lucky only reactor 4 exploded, and even that caused massive death). I think conservatives are disingenuous when they discuss nuclear and power, and what they really mean is no wind and no solar.

  9. James’ post is the sort of anti-nuclear stand that almost drives me towards the pro-nuclear camp. Get this straight – even allowing for Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power has proved safer than every other form of bulk power generation and will continue to be so. The problem is that it has also proved more expensive and will continue to be so. Which is John’s wholly correct point.

    The economic cost of Chernobyl was always a bigger issue than irradiation (many many more lives were lost due to the loss of generating power in a Ukrainian winter than were lost to radiation), and that goes many times over for the far less catastrophic Fukushima (eg not a single member of the public exceeded WHO levels of safe radiation exposure, while the whole of Tokyo was exposed to VERY unsafe levels of toxic byproducts of the oil refinery fires the tsunami caused).

  10. @derrida derider

    “many more lives were lost due to the loss of generating power in a Ukrainian winter”

    Chernobyl happened in April (26, 1986). Winter was over.

    “not a single member of the public exceeded WHO levels of safe radiation exposure”

    This is a high bar. Keith Moon was so drugged he could have been exposed to a molten reactor core and not been affected.

  11. @derrida derider

    I think you’re engaging in gross revisionism. Chernobyl was an unmitigated disaster and alerted the world to the dangers of nuclear power generation. Nobody will ever know the exact death toll because of the difficulty of establishing causality. I think we can safely conclude that many lives were lost immediately and the years following (a benign effect of Chernobyl is that it precipitated Glasnost and Perestroika and the more enlightened rule of Mikhail Gorbachev). The dangers illustrated by Chernobyl and Fukushima and the problem of waste aside, the economics have never stacked up. How’s that absurd facility in the U.K. going? Interesting that proponents of nuclear power tend to be the same Very Serious Persons who advocate fiscal constraint and balanced budgets. I agree that we have the solution in our hands: solar, wind and batteries. Bring on a price on carbon and usher in the future!

  12. @derrida derider
    “Not a single member of the public exceeded WHO levels of safe radiation exposure ..” The heroic cleanup workers don’t count then? As employees they did not get much of a free choice. You should also have the grace to admit that the effect of low exposure on a large population (unhealthy in Ukraine and Belarus, healthy in Japan) is very uncertain. It may be nil but we don’t really know.

  13. derrida derider :
    nuclear power has proved safer than every other form of bulk power generation and will continue to be so

    I assume you’re using something like this Forbes article? which links to this study of wind farm deaths in England? Or this other Forbes article that has a nice table? That says wind kills 1,000 people per trillion kWhrs produced, coal 100,000-10,000 per trillion via air pollution, and nuclear zero. They don’t give figures for large solar plants, and they swap between US-only, England-only and world numbers without much consistency.

    That’s a weird way of counting, because they’re only counting deaths on the site of power plants for wind and nuclear but they count “related” deaths for coal. Other deaths they don’t even discuss which ones count. They mention the bird death issue as a comparison point, but again count on site deaths for wind and nuclear vs related deaths for coal. Quite why deaths in coal mines count but deaths in uranium mines don’t I’m not sure.

    My comparison would be hydro in Australia or New Zealand, where the death rate is actually zero. Sadly we have deaths from nuclear power generation in Australia (viz uranium mining) even though we don’t generate any nuclear power, so our death rate from nuclear is NaN {error division by zero}.

  14. It’s a bit simplistic – and potentially misleading – to look only at the risks according to rates in sieverts of exposure to ionising radiation; broader exposure risks are also about absorption of specific substances like iodine 131, caesium 137, radon 220/222 and strontium 90 with known carcinogenic properties. Whether the longer term cancer risks are downplayed or exaggerated I don’t know. That other activities come with, potentially, greater health risks look like good reasons to raise standards for those rather than lower them for nuclear.

    I also have concerns for weapons proliferation from any massive global expansion of nuclear technologies; civilian nuclear provides a lot of the essential skills and technologies that military nuclear also use and the most highly skilled will always find it hard to resist being poached – by inducements or threats – wherever governments have nuclear weapons ambitions. I also, as will be clear to those familiar with my comments here and there, have concerns about the conflicted motivations and depth of insincerity within nuclear advocacy.

  15. A colleague of mine (who shall not be identified) has recently stated during a lecture to postgraduate students that cities of more than 5 million will not be able to be powered solely by renewables any time soon and will need nuclear energy to help power them on a carbon-free basis. Quite a few zombies in that line of argument.

  16. Paul Norton, interesting discontinuity there.

    But it is nice to know we can run every single Australian city but one off renewables without needing nuclear power, and at a pinch we could always move 30,000 people out of Sydney so it will sneak in under the limit.

  17. James Wimberley, I was talking about Fukushima in that para, and members of the public, not workers. Please read for comprehension.

    James, Ukrainians died from loss of heating and transport in the blackouts that followed in the subsequent winter as generating capacity in the country had suffered a large unplanned depletion – Chernobyl, remember, was the biggest power station of ANY type in the world.

    The very large WHO study put an upper bound of excess deaths from fallout in the hundreds, not thousands (despite the criminal mismanagement of the Soviets in having Mayday parades in Kiev a week after the accident). For which of course the scientists had their motives vociferously attacked after the fact by Greenpeace and assorted other groups (including the Ukrainian government chasing foreign aid) who didn’t like the results; attacks that might have had more credibility if they had taken place before the unfavourable results were known. All very reminiscent of climate denialism, BTW.

    Just for comparison, Bhopal killed 26 thousand immediately and probably several times that in delayed mortality.

    But this is all water under the bridge. It’s the beancounters, not the greenies, killing nuclear power now (which is why you’re right to talk of “that absurd facility in the UK”) .

  18. @Moz of Yarramulla

    The Snowy Mountains Scheme monument at Cooma commemorates the deaths of some 120 men killed in construction. Most were entombed in concrete or crushed to death. Lest we forget.

  19. @Hal9000

    Yeah, agreed they are important and should be counted. It is tricky to count deaths per TWh during construction because you don’t know the rate until the plant is decommissioned. Either that or it will drop exponentially over time as more TWh are generated. It’s likely also difficult to get those death rates from many sites, and you also have the boundary problem again (does a construction truck running over a pedestrian count? What if it was carrying stuff to a new road maintenance depot being built by a local council to support the generation?)

    That’s part of my “which deaths count” objection, because the numbers in the reports I cited exclude construction deaths (but include some maintenance ones, and in the case of nuclear seem to include post-accident worker deaths).

    My inclination is to look broadly, as per the “embodied energy” studies used by the building industry. They have those numbers pretty readily to hand (there are giant tables available), so it should be relatively easy to do similar things for death rates. But that would require caring about them and as Forbes point out, we willingly sacrifice thousands of people every year to the road gods so getting people to care about a much smaller number of power station workers seems a big ask.

    Which raises the question: why do people suddenly care when it’s people killed by wind farms vs nuclear? Facts don’t lie, but if you torture them enough they’ll tell you want you want to hear.

  20. But if they died ’cause of power losses then those are still deaths attributable to failings with nuclear power, aren’t they? If you want to argue “nuclear power sucks, just not for the reasons you think” then…. sure, I guess.

    (The basic problem is that failures from nuke plants have a different and harder-to-manage distribution than failures from coal: even arguendo if the failure _rate_ is the same, more of that error being in major problems and less of it being in minor problems means you get less info on the reliability of your risk management systems, which – human nature being what it is – means that with nukes your safety-mamagement systems are _far_ more likely to spend time significantly degraded. This is not a point I’ve seen nuclear proponents seriously engage with, something that fits well into my general analytical framework.)

  21. derrida derider, I with you on your analysis of the Chernobyl disaster. Despite the fact that it reflected badly on the industry, nuclear medicine expects were looking forward to good set of data from the victims. Apparently, the current radiation exposure model is based on data obtained from the victims of the Japanese bombs from WWII. (There seem to be some sort of ethics problem with subjecting people to high levels of radiation and observing the effects in double blind trials!) There is a suspicion that model is far too conservative and this results in a huge additional cost to any activity related to the use of radiation. According to the current standard model there should have been 4000 children who should have contracted Thyroid cancer and another 4000 victims from other cancers. As you say nothing like these numbers have been found in the affected population.

    The big trouble was that at the same time they were trying to collect their data the average age of a male in the republics of the former USSR fell from the high 60s to the low 50s. This was because of the social dislocation caused by big bang transition from a centrally planned to a market economy. Somewhere between 10 and 15 years was wiped off male half of the population’s life. This is the equivalent of several million deaths. It made their data analysis nearly impossible.

    But it also put the Chernobyl disaster in perspective. Maybe, there is a lesson here for budding terrorists. If you want to do real damage, don’t blow up a nuclear reactor, get a job an consultant economist to a central planned economy and advise a big bang free market transformation.

  22. 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.

  23. @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.

  24. 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.

  25. As I recall, nuclear power stations always needed a liability cap as a hand out from government.

  26. @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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. @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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. @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.

  34. 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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