Nuclear power advocates are running out of fuel

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Crikey, reproduced over the fold. Not really news for those who’ve been paying attention, but I was pleased with this observation

the latest nuclear power plants have the unfortunate distinction of being simultaneously untried and obsolescent.

Nuclear power advocates are running out of fuel

The diminishing band of nuclear power fans had some rare good news recently. Two of the leading designs for new nuclear power plants — the AP1000, designed by US company Westinghouse, and the EPR, developed by Areva in France — achieved criticality (that is, the state where nuclear fuel sustains a fission chain reaction) in June. Both the plants are in China, at Sanmen and Taishan respectively.

But good news for nuclear power is never unmixed, and that’s certainly the case here. The construction process was as overtime and over-budget as usual, though not as badly as in the West, where construction of similar plants is running as much as a decade behind schedule. In the course of this protracted process, both Westinghouse and Areva have gone bankrupt.

These plants will require a fair bit of operating experience before it can be said whether they actually function as designed. Since the design took place in the 1980s and 1990s, the latest nuclear power plants have the unfortunate distinction of being simultaneously untried and obsolescent.

In the decades since the design process of Generation III and Generation III+ nuclear plants began, the technology of renewable energy generation has changed radically. The cost of solar photovoltaic cells has fallen from $30 per watt in the early 1980s to 30 cents a watt today, a factor of 100. The cost of wind power has declined by “only” a factor of 10 over the same period, but the outcome is costs far lower than that of new nuclear.

Outside China there are now only two AP1000 reactors under construction, both at Vogtle in the US state of Georgia. Another two-reactor plant in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of billions of dollars. There are also two EPR reactors under construction, at Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland, both far behind schedule. Finally, there’s a new plant proposed for Hinkley Point in the UK, which seems unlikely ever to happen, despite an absurdly favorable deal from the UK government.

India has held out the prospect of a rescue with statements of intent for a six-unit AP1000 plant to be built in Gujarat and a similar-sized EPR plant in Mahrashtra. These massive projects, similar to proposals for a dozen or more “Ultra Mega” coal fired power plants of 4000 GW, seem unlikely ever to proceed. The primary object seems to be the announcement of the project rather than its construction and completion.

There’s another downside to the completion of the Sanmen and Taishan plants. One of the favorite claims of nuclear advocates is that there are lots of plants being constructed in many countries. But each project completion reduces the number under construction and hardly anyone is starting new projects. Many countries are reaching the end of their construction pipeline.

The World Nuclear Association lists 50 projects currently under construction, down from more than 60 a few years ago. Nearly all of these were started in 2015 or earlier and most are expected to be finished by 2021. Unless new projects are started, that will mark the end of Generation III nuclear power construction in China, Korea and France, leaving only India with a substantial and continuing program.

For the true believers, hopes are now pinned on new technologies, including Generation IV reactors and “small modular reactors”. Gen IV projects have been around for decades, and seem about as likely to work as controlled nuclear fusion. Small modular reactors are being developed in China and the US, but there’s no reason to suppose they will be cheaper than traditional larger reactors. In any case, they are not going to be deployed on any large scale before the 2030s, by which time the cost of renewables will have fallen even further.

But none of this is going to shake the faith of the majority of nuclear power advocates in Australia. Most of them, like Tony Abbott, are climate science denialists. Their assertions on energy issues are statements of cultural affiliation, rather then factual claims about the world, open to being refuted by contrary evidence. Even when nuclear construction stops altogether they will still be blaming the failure on greenies, the United Nations and Agenda 21.

8 thoughts on “Nuclear power advocates are running out of fuel

  1. One of the darkest things Quiggin has written and no one seems to have accessed it yet.

    If you found his comments on electricity interesting , give this a go also.

    Hasn’t even had to mention Fukushima, the modern Godwin, to produce a startling thread starter.

    Makes this writer think in passing, as to how someone like Monbiot ever got sucked into spruiking for them

  2. “The cost of solar photovoltaic cells has fallen from $30 per watt in the early 1980s to 30 cents a watt today…”
    Take your eye off the PV ball for a second, and you are out of date. Trade site PvInsights gives the average producer price for plain vanilla polysilicon modules as 26.2 cents per watt. Premium high efficiency poly and mono are 31.2c and 33.6c respectively, so you can rescue 30c per watt as a rough overall average.

  3. Nuclear energy is not ecologically sustainable. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the north east coast of Japan are testimony to that fact. There are much safer energy choices for the sort of investment necessary to build nuclear power stations.

  4. It’s correct that nuclear energy is not sustainable. Peak uranium is as much a production reality as peak oil. However, keeping a small fleet of the safest nuclear power stations running could be very useful. As, high quality (high EROEI) power gets scarcer, the incentive to “burn” more nuclear weapon pits for harness-able energy will increase. The corollary will be a reduction in the size of nuclear weapon stockpiles. With better climate science and nuclear war simulation it has become clear that it would only take about 100 to 400 nuclear weapons of average size to create a nuclear winter severe enough to kill billions world-wide and probably end global civilization.

    Currently the world has about 9,000 deployable or redeployable nuclear weapons with the USA and Russia possessing over 90% of these. There are possibly another 5,000 nuclear cores or “pits” in disassembled storage. So… overkill.

    With a better understanding of how few nuclear weapons it takes to end civilization, the attractiveness of “burning” pits for an energy supplement increases greatly.

  5. As a rhetorical blunt instrument for attacking ‘green’ policies nuclear has plenty of life left. When the sincere ‘nuclear is best’ voters can be counted on to side with opposition to strong climate action – sharing a liking for delay and a dislike for renewables.

    Apathy, ignorance and alarmist economic fear keep the obstructionist objectives going and the anti-RE anti-‘green’ rhetoric of the pro-nuclear activists fits in perfectly. At some point obstructionists will not have enough support and pro-nukers will hold a ‘balance of power’ position – but despite the best circumstances for a genuine Rethink of means for getting to zero emissions being a reassessment after the demise of obstructionist influence, this rather disparate lot cannot be relied upon to side against them, even temporarily.

    Unfortunately the sincere ‘nuclear is best’ type is rarer than those like Tony Abbott or Craig Kelly. No accident or coincidence that (supposedly) pro-nukers like Bjorn Lomborg or others of the Lukewarmer/Ecomodernist ilk or have been much beloved by the obstructionists. These will never run out of reasons to oppose what is being done in favour of what might be done – whilst lacking reasons to push what might be done hard enough to actually do them.

  6. Ikono, if you want to get rid of weapons grade nuclear material i think “dilute and dump” would be a lot cheaper, quicker, and less dangerous than trying to fission it away.

    Let’s say you make some fuel rods out of weapons grade material and use them in a reactor. You then end up with highly radioactive waste someone could process to get weapons grade material. You could process that yourself but then you’d have to keep doing that until the waste is dilute enough to meet whatever standard of safety you have set. This process will also generate secondary nuclear waste.

    Instead you could just dilute it without fissioning it first. It would take a few kilowatt-hours of energy to melt a kilogram of uranium and dilute it by half by alloying it with something else. You just add more energy and add more dross until it’s no more radioactive than uranium ore.

    After all, it’s not as if there is any shortage of high quality (high EROEI) power. Solar panels only cost around 30 US cents a watt.

  7. “Nearly all … [nuclear plants under construction] … were started in 2015 or earlier and most are expected to be finished by 2021.”
    Given experience of actual construction timelines for these this surely means we’ll still be building some long after 2021 …

    Some of the comments above are a bit tiresome repeating old talking points, largely false, once hysterical, and now just tired, on nuclear power’s safety or sustainability. People, that’s all moot now – you no longer have to try and convince people it’s the devil’s work leading to the apocalypse because the boring old beancounters will stop it now (as they’re stopping new coal plants). John’s right – regardless of anything else the whole thing is increasingly economically irrational.

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