Save the nukes

I’ve written numerous posts pointing out that expansion of nuclear power is not a serious option in decarbonizing the electricity supply. In a sense, there’s no need to make the case, as no profit-oriented corporation is ever likely to start a new plant. The recent abandonment of two proposed plants in the UK, despite the offer of massive subsidies, illustrates the point. The only purpose of talk about new nuclear power is to attack the only realistic options, wind and solar PV.

On the other hand, nuclear power is a lot less dangerous than coal. So, it’s worrying to see nuclear power plants closing down in the US and elsewhere, when there are plenty of coal-fired power plants still in operation. The worse case is Germany, where the phaseout of nuclear power has left lots of lignite-fuelled power stations still in operation.

The sensible policy is first, to abandon any idea of closing nuclear power stations by direct regulation and second, to impose a substantial carbon price, putting coal-fired power stations first in the “order of demerit” for closure.

Of course, none of this is relevant to Australia, where the big problem is that our ancient and dirty coal-fired stations are being kept alive by the anti-renewable stance of the LNP. Contrary their claims of being more reliable than renewables they routinely break down when most needed.

We need a carbon price, but in the short term the goal must be to shut down the oldest coal-fired plants and replace them with a crash program of renewable generation, publicly and privately owned.

26 thoughts on “Save the nukes

  1. German Greens get a lot of stick for the nukes-first policy, and fair enough – from an Olympian distance. But critics like JQ should remember that the Energiewende started out as an anti-nuclear movement after Chernobyl, and only later added support for renewables, and more recently for phasing out coal. Thee was never a political pathway to a coal-first transition. Given the critical role of German FITs in the 2000s for bringing down world solar prices to grid parity, I think Fell and Scheer etc. should be cut more than a little slack.

    JQ proposes a carbon tax, like most sane economists. Funny how the first-best policy continues not to be adopted everywhere, while second-best kludges like FITs, auctions, renewables obligations and tax breaks flourish and keep moving us forward.

  2. German phase down of nuclear power was shameless populism by Merkel after Fukushima; shameless because Germany imports nuclear power from France. Itn the unlikely event that a French nuclear plant goes tits up it’s not as though there is a barrier over the Rhine to stop the radiation spreading into Germany,

    Well may we say Fuk u Shiima.

    Renewables friendly Denmark also imports nuclear energy, by the by, from Sweden.

  3. To what extent were Germany’s pro-lignite conservatives willing to sacrifice their support nuclear as the political compromise that protected the future of their coal resources? If they really cared about climate change they would have fought for nuclear a lot harder and not fought against renewables. And not fought for coal. The political impetus to action failed to arise out of mainstream politics and didn’t shift until German Greens – who do indeed strenuously oppose nuclear – became mainstream politics.

    The lack of leadership on the climate issue – more like anti-leadership – by mainstream politics is not unique to Australia and the USA – whilst the media there makes LNP style rhetoric unacceptable, the same fundamental reasons to oppose strong climate action are there in Germany. Opposition is often disguised behind nice sounding in-principle statements and formal positions that appear to support emissions reductions policies – just like the Business Council of Australia, which has (if you actually look past the rhetoric) made the collective position of business owners and operators clear – if saving Australia and the world from dangerous climate change means energy prices will go up, they won’t support it. They would rather commit us to a course leading to 6 degrees of warming than have energy costs include the climate externalities.

    Failures of leadership – which are also profound failures of competency and responsibility and trust – have been far more significant than anti-nuclear activism; if mainstream politics had faced this head on Green politics would not have gotten a look in.

  4. The anti-nuclear movement dates back to the sixties while the climate change driven anti coal movement really only started to take off in the late eighties, early nineties. The phase out of nuclear power took place after forty years of consistent campaigning with the high profile disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima still needed for final victory. Given this timescale for successful political activism we may have to wait another decade and for a couple of major climate related disasters.

  5. anti nuclear mass rejection dates to the 60’s?

    i beg to differ.

    “Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament” mass demonstrations were going in the 50’s.

    Three Mile Island brought the reality of civilian use into focus.

    i wonder if Sir Terry Pratchett (deceased) actually left a record of his time as a PR(?) writer in the nuclear power industry that he alluded to in some of his writings.

  6. No, may, CND in its early years was just what it said – against nuclear ARMS. In fact they often were quite keen to turn swords into ploughshares (a biblical expression, BTW, which they were fond of because in those days evangelical Christians tended to be a mainstay of the left, not the right). Plus the old-style commos in the 1950s/early 60s movement were keen on nuclear power because the USSR was keen on it. That all didn’t change until the late 60s with the rise of the New Left and Green movements (which were of course disdained by both the Xtian pacifists and the Stalinists).

  7. derridaderider

    Actually the first anti-nuclear power protests (in the US) were in 1950s, against plans to build a nuclear power station on the San Andreas fault. (It got built.)

  8. derridaderider, they still are. Ploughshares is still an active movement and there are Christian pacifists of various denominations still getting arrested and carted off to jail. Some of them are still going from those days, and it can be funny watching cops try to work out how exactly to deal with a noncompliant geriatric.

  9. I am a little surprised about the heading of this thread and much of the content. The objective of climate policy is to reduce ghg emissions. The objective of closing down nuclear power plants is to reduce the risk of accidents and the idea of not building new power plants is to reduce further accumulation of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants.

    France as an explicit policy of reducing nuclear power energy production while building up renewables.

    The UK has made the decision not to make matters worse with nuclear power plants.

    Germany had a more ambitious ghg emission reduction program than the EU and had therefore a little room to bring forward its the long planned closure of nuclear power plants.

    Now this multi-dimensional dynamic decision making problem is suggested to be reduced to ‘shut down coal and keep nuclear plants going’. I don’t think so.

    I don’t understand a comment suggesting there is something ethically wrong for trade in electricity between EU member countries because the time schedule of shutting down nuclear power plants differs between two member countries. The EU does provide a forum for coordinating policy plans for the production of stuff that is traded in a common market.

  10. The cost of the Fukushima nuclear disaster was maybe $265 billion. This was a disaster where the radioactive plume was blown out to sea. A similar disaster in Germany where there is basically no safe direction for the plume to go could potentially cost trillions in a country with a GDP of $5.2 trillion. Also, the harm would occur to Germans and potentially countries right next to Germany while harm from global warming is distributed worldwide. So Germany shutting down its nuclear power stations is not surprising. But it does make things worse for everyone else in the world.

  11. Just in time for the topic of this thread, the German governmental commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment, published the time line for the planned phasing out of coal fired power generation. In gigawatts:
    Minus 12.5 by 2022
    Minus 16 to 20 by 2030
    Minus the rest (ca 17) by 2038 or 2035 if possible as assessed around 2030.
    The goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 2030 by ca 60% relative to 1990 remains.
    This plan comes with Euro 40 billion Fed Gov expenditure, spread over 20 years, for structural programs to assist those regions (mainly in the former East German States) where the closure of coal fired power generation has significant employment impacts.
    [Source: Der Spiegel online and Sueddeutsche Zeitung, today]

    The planned closure of the remaining nuclear power stations by 2022 remains. (This deadline was first set by the SPD-Gruenen government under Schroeder. In 2011 the Merkel government brought forward the closure of nuclear power stations which had been built prior to 1981.)

  12. An addendum to my comment on the second-best kludgy subsidies for renewables and EVs. These also impose a second-best virtual carbon tax on fossil fuel industries by worsening their competitive position against renewables and batteries. Or rather, they counteract the existing large subsidies the fossil fuel sectors receive. Perhaps economists should spend more energy attacking these. The professional interest is zero as there is no case for the subsidies and the academic Cool factor of opposing them is negligible.

  13. All developed nations should be able to concomitantly reduce nuclear power use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on any medium term view. It’s not as if the equation is solely “one or the other”. The other factors in the equation are the rapidity of the renewable energy build-up and the significant energy savings made possible by reducing energy waste, inefficiency and over-consumption.

    Where spare energy generation capacity is freed up by any of the above mentioned measures then a decision can be made on whether the next generator closure in a given country or network is to be a coal fired power station or a nuclear power station. It might be logical to give coal fired generator closures priority in most cases. However, there likely will be cases where imminent dangers from a deteriorating nuclear power plant are greater and rectification is costly or impossible. In that case, the nuclear power plant must be decommissioned.

  14. An outlier yet in the vien of anti nuclear not nuclear weapons.

    “:Daigo Fukuryū Maru (第五福龍丸, F/V Lucky Dragon 5) was a Japanese tuna fishing boatwith a crew of 23 men which was contaminated by nuclear fallout from the United States Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. The crew suffered acute radiation syndrome(ARS) for a number of weeks after the Bravo test in March. During their ARS treatment, the crew were inadvertently infected withhepatitis C through blood transfusions.[1
    The Toho Film Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), was inspired in part by this event. The ship itself appears on a poster in 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which also features Godzilla coming ashore and wreaking havoc in the Yaizu area.

    James W: “Or rather, they counteract the existing large subsidies the fossil fuel sectors receive.” Good point.

    Ernestine: could you tell us how the drought in germany effects any of this please.

  15. James Wimberley, you bring water to my mill regarding the multi-dimensional dynamic problem of policy formation with your double and off-setting subsidies example. I can’t speak for economists. However, I don’t believe there are no or even a not sufficient number of economists who do not point out the implications regarding relative price changes due to subsidies. IMHO, these arguments may not be visible because it is very difficult to write about it in general terms and the theoretical treatment is typically simplified such that more empirical information is required to use the theoretical insights. In particular, the initial conditions regarding a rather large number of variables differs enormously among juristictions (‘countries’) at any time and over time. I am interested in the EU partly because in comparison to the whole world, this problem of initial conditions is relatively small.

    KT2, as you probably know too, the long, hot and dry norther summer resulted in the river Rhein losing so much water that many ships, which transport bulk commodities (and also parts for airbus manufacturing), had to initially reduce the load and later on could not operate at all. If this event had any influence on policy formation, then it would be the second time when changes in the river Rhein influenced the very strong and still growing green movement in Germany. The first time was, from memory, in the 1970s when the water pollution of this river caused outrage. The story is that some students put a film in the river near Ludwigshafen (heavy chemical industry – Bayer for example) and the film became ‘developed’. I do not have material to verify this story. There is not only the increasingly successful Green party but there are multiple resident groups who exert pressure on governments on various levels, from local to state to federal to the EU.

  16. Thanks Ernestine.
    Ironic if air bus parts need a helicopter to pick up and deliver.
    Love to know if true re film being developed. Judging bynarticle below it seems almost plausible.

    Shipping co Haniel decided it needed roll on roll off ships to deal with problems of Rhein. And invested early it seems.
    And wow! Pollution in ’87.

    And €2Bn per year for coal ohase out over 20yrs seems a bearable and realistic.

    40 deg C outside as I type.

  17. Is it nuclear power per se, or the plant design that is at issue? Companies that have invested in one design for the last 30 years are not likely to do research on a whole new design or adopt an extant one that is better.

  18. Ronald’s comment is the sort of fake news that led me in reaction to support nuclear power for too long (these days I agree with John that it is very safe compared to non-renewables like coal but now more expensive than other renewables).

    $265B is much more likely to be the total cost of the tsunami – not the Fukushima clean up. And there was no radioactive plume. And, as I predicted at the time, not a single member of the public exceeded the WHO safe limit of radioactive exposure. All while many thousands of Japanese will die from the toxic smoke that blanketed Tokyo as a result of the tsunami-induced oil refinery fire – which got almost no coverage.

  19. Okay, derridaderrida, just so I’ve got this right for future reference:

    – Saying the risk of a nuclear disaster is a huge financial liability for Germany is fake news.

    – Saying no radioactive plume was released by the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster is double plus good news.

    – Evacuating a city has no cost if nobody dies in the process.

    – Using the internet that I am currently on to look up the estimated cost of the 2011 Japan Tsunami and see that it is estimated to be $580 billion in today’s money is something only a weak fool would do.

    I’ll be certain to use all these points in my future Not At All Fake News comments as soon as I get your check in the mail.

  20. From Reuters:

    Japan’s government on Friday nearly doubled its projections for costs related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster to 21.5 trillion yen ($188 billion) …


    Nonetheless, I side with Derrida.

    I assume Ronald’s $580 billion figure comes from a cross-eyed reading of another Reuters article that says:

    Japan’s government on Friday nearly doubled its projections for costs related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster to 21.5 trillion yen ($188 billion) …


  21. Sorry, the second quote should be:

    A nuclear accident similar to the one at Japan’s Fukushima reactor would cost France about 430 billion euros ($580 billion)

  22. The Wiki article says it will take 30-40 years to clean up the mess, so at $182 billion that works out around $5 billon per year, or $40 per Japanese person per year for a generation.

    Not exactly ruinous, not even if you double the cost and double it again.

  23. Not ruinous but ruddy expensive nonetheless.

    Anyway, since the Germans and French haven’t put their reactors in crazy locations that are liable to earthquakes and tsunamis and the like, I agree with Prof Quiggin’s post.

  24. Smith9 I think you miss the point, by the proverbial country mile.

    Estimates of cost are vastly exceeded by the actual cost.

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