Mesmerised by Messmer

Faced with glaring evidence of delays and cost blowouts, advocates of nuclear power invariably fall back on the same argument: France did it in the 1970s, why can’t we? An obvious riposte is that France can’t do it any more, as shown by the Flamanville fiasco. A more reasonable answer, which I put forward some years ago, is that the 1970s program depended on characteristics of the French state at the time: centralised, technocratic and with complete control of the energy sector. Those characteristics can’t be replicated today – the state doesn’t have the same power to ignore public opinion or to direct investment.

In writing this, I wasn’t aware of the details of the French experience, which make the point even more clearly. The French nuclear expansion began with the announcement of the Messmer Plan, by PM Pierre Messmer for France to go ‘all nuclear, all electric’.

Messmer announced the plan in early 1974, and construction of the first three plants started in December of that year. There was no parliamentary debate, no opportunity for public discussion and of course nothing like an environmental impact statement. It was the absence of any kind of due process, rather than super-efficient construction that accounts for the speed with which the Plan took effect. The first plants took six years to build; delays and costs increased over time.

Even so, the Plan was not delivered in full.The plan envisaged the construction of around 80 nuclear plants by 1985 and a total of 170 plants by 2000. Even so, the Plan was not delivered in full. The actual number was only 56, and the hoped for transition to an all-electric economy didn’t happen.

19 thoughts on “Mesmerised by Messmer

  1. The French did get to a nearly all-nuclear electricity supply. They had no success on road transport, for which electric technology was not available at the time; I don’t recall any great efforts being tried. Policy encouraged a shift to electric space heating in housing: I built a house in Strasbourg in the 1970s and there was no gas line in the estate.

  2. Dusting off the old nuclear-power-in-Oz 2×4 I see. Must be some greenies nearby. *Whack* “If only you electoral rump of greenies had let us build nuclear power stations back in the late 90s/early 00s…” *Whack* “…we wouldn’t be in this mess!” *Whack* “You made us keep digging up and burning coal…” *Whack* “…when all we wanted was a carbon free grid.” *Sniggers in background* *WhackWhack*

    What does an alternate timeline where nuclear gets a run in Oz look like? Not later than the early to mid noughties, before the cost curve of renewables starts plummeting, and before the Wests collective inability to deliver a modern nuclear plant to budget and within a reasonable timeframe becomes abundantly clear. So John Howard going all in on nuclear, for the sake of a date no later than the end of 2006, the year of the first screening of An Inconvenient Truth :p. The Ziggy Nukes report comes in and JH decides a nuclear powered Oz will be the capstone of his career.

    Early-mid noughties is the right time for an Areva PWR or AP1000 so lets assume we go with one of those. The timeline is also pretty much right to, about now, be contemplating the cost and schedule blowouts that have plagued those reactor designs. We don’t yet have a single working reactor. I wonder if the government would be able to bury news about it like they were able to with the NBN? Lets assume there’s no RET or other mechanisms so PV and wind adoption is delayed, but the economics are starting to drive their adoption regardless. So in all likelihood it would be not too dissimilar to where we are today, except with delayed wind/solar penetration, tens of billions sunk into reactors not yet producing power, and serious doubt being voiced over the viability of the pipeline of future reactors.

    Yeah, nah. This timeline sucks but the likely nuclear one (not the REALLY fantastical one where we built all the reactors on time and under budget) is probably worse.

  3. “A more reasonable answer, which I put forward some years ago, is that the 1970s program depended on characteristics of the French state at the time: centralised, technocratic and with complete control of the energy sector….”

    I think thats right. If we wanted to do it safely, and with negligible decommissioning costs decades into the future. Safe from all infiltration. Safe from extreme natural events or sabotage or indeed sabotage PRETENDING to be extreme natural events. If we don’t want to be paying for the implicit interest charges of the program. If we want to do it slowly to see to it that we are doing it right. …. If we want all this we should make it a communist undertaking. Communist run, by the Australian government, financed only through surplus budgets, subcontracting out to Aussie sole traders. Paying foreigners only for consultancy fees. Do it real slow. Do it right. Get it done low cost. But maybe not in time for you or for me but get it done right.

  4. What is the list of Australian engineering companies capable of building a large nuclear power station at all, forgetting about the safe, on time and within budget parts? Thought so.

  5. If we can get the Sydney Opera House built on time and on budget, how hard can a nuclear reactor be?

  6. But its a bigger project than that Ronald. We don’t just want one. We want dozens. So we want an Australian workforce with the skill set to make each one better, faster, more cheaply than the one prior. Plus we cannot have (for example) Mossad infiltration like the Japanese had. We cannot have one that multiplies problems during war, natural disaster or espionage. We cannot be outsourcing big chunks of the work to people who could be Israeli, Chinese or indeed American intelligence agencies. So its a big project. If you take this sort of thing on you eventually want it to become an export industry. One where you can pull up a floating station anywhere in the world and offer cheap electricity to any city close to the coast who wants it.

    The worst thing about handing out infrastructure to the corporate sector to handle is that all the loot gets left with the bankers rather than with small business. Another bad thing is that the knowledge of how to do these things becomes corporate proprietary knowledge rather than knowledge widely distributed amongst highly skilled Australian workers. The small businessman and farmers who built the Eire canal wound up as experts in this sort of thing and produced many innovations along the way.

  7. A speculation – I don’t have the data but it’s checkable. France has excellent higher technological education. It’s not delivered in the badly funded universities with open enrolment to anybody with a bac, but in the very selective, and much smaller. grandes écoles. These have strong and influential old boy networks; presumably these lobby to keep numbers and competition down. The institutional incentives in countries where technology is taught by universities (including Germany) are quite different – they will expand to meet demand. The hypothesis is that France’s technological élite is comparatively small. It can’t do everything at once. In the 1970s, they focused on the nuclear programme. Now they are more likely to be doing broadband or e-business. The deterioration in reactor construction could reflect a high-level skills shortage.

    It is, incidentally, a major advantage of the wind/solar/storage model is that it’s not very high tech after the design stage. Solar installation is at roughly the skill level of plumbing. Wind is a bit more demanding, and much more exciting, but not rocket science. The project management is routine because projects are very similar. They go up on time and to budget in places like Morocco, Mexico, India and Brazil with very moderate educational levels in the workforce.

  8. Essentially, more proof that;

    (a) statism can do more than any other system;
    (b) statism is no longer possible in the West after the neoliberal evisceration of the state; and
    (c) even statism has limits and could not save us now anyway.

    Collapse is inevitable. Earth Overshoot Day this year was yesterday, July 29th. If my spending overshot my income by the that date this year, how long would my lifestyle last? Well, we would need a little more information to calculate that, like the quantity of savings. But it we had a series of overshoot dates from previous years, could we not calculate it? Maybe like this data:

    https://www.statista.com/chart/15026/earth-overshoot-day-comes-sooner-every-year/

    Anyone like to calculate collapse day? What’s the trend? Also, there will be effects not seen from a mere depletion of ordinary savings, namely decay of infrastructure, society and nature. The closer analogy would be me over-spending my income and eating savings while doing d r u g s and effecting no repairs to a ramshackle, tumbledown, condemned home as my abode while living in street of rampant crime and social decay.

  9. Graeme Bird , thanks for listing all the externalities against nuclear I usually don’t remember. The incident risk, timelines and money usually dominate my thinking on nuclear power.

    GB: “But its a bigger project [The Opera House] than that Ronald.” 
    [The Opera House]… “In reality, the project was completed ten years late and 1,357% over budget in real terms.”
    wikipedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Opera_House
    Great endorsement NOT for constructing nuclear.

    GB: “We don’t just want one. We want dozens.” 
    … of what – stranded assets?
    JQ said: “on new technologies, including Generation IV reactors and “small modular 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.” From “Nuclear power advocates are running out of fuel” previously by JQ.

    GB: “So we want an Australian workforce with the skill set to make each one better, faster, more cheaply than the one prior. ”
    Please show us a future proof design which supports your statememt above. JQ above says “The first plants took six years to build; delays and costs increased over time.”. And, this was in the absence of; “no parliamentary debate, no opportunity for public discussion and of course nothing like an environmental impact statement.”

    GB: “Plus we cannot have (for example) Mossad infiltration like the Japanese had.”
    Hmmm… as stated above I am usually blind to the danger of nefarious agents and geopolitics related to nuclear. Do you have an example or believe Mossad will infiltrate the solar / wind farm up the road?

    GB: “We cannot have one that multiplies problems during war, natural disaster or espionage. ”
    “We cannot have one that multiplies problems” surely if related to nuclear, an oxymoron? A war room near you;  “Oh. Distrubuted renewable energy generation. No General, we cannot knock out Australia’s generation like we did in France, China, USA and reduce population and gdp that year by 50% and render 50% of the land mass uninhabitable so that ‘we’ don’t even want to go there after we launched “.

    GB: “We cannot be outsourcing big chunks of the work to people who could be Israeli, Chinese or indeed American intelligence agencies.”
    Fear & Xenophobia – with renewables?! See above.

    GB: “So its a big project. ” See Opera House above.

    GB: “If you take this sort of thing on you eventually want it to become an export industry.”
    It is as you say – Big, cannot be outsourced,  may cause problem in war/ natural disaster/ espionage. And you hope – eventually – for Australia to overtake the US, Japan, China etc and become the worlds designer of nuclear reactors. This statement is a BIGGER project than both opera house and nuclear. How do you see this being achieved.

    GB: “One where you can pull up a floating station anywhere in the world and offer cheap electricity to any city close to the coast who wants it.”
    We already have this covered.  Any nuclear powered submarine. Geopolitics. ” I’d like a 1Gw reactor parked off” … pick your city.

    GB: “The worst thing about handing out infrastructure to the corporate sector to handle is that all the loot gets left with the bankers rather than with small business.” 
    We agree in this… socialise the loss, externalities, and capitalise on the money, power and knowlege.

    GB: “Another bad thing is that the knowledge of how to do these things becomes corporate proprietary knowledge rather than knowledge widely distributed amongst highly skilled Australian workers. ”
    Fix this problem first and we may talk then of nuclear. As rog says: “It’s not lack of construction skills, more to do with risk management.” And proprietary intellectual property.

    GB: “The small businessman and farmers who built the Eire canal wound up as experts in this sort of thing and produced many innovations along the way.”
    Please explain how “small businessMEN and farmers” are going to end up as experts on nuclear power generation design and construction then innovate after gaining such expertise? As James Wimberley says: “a major advantage of the wind/solar/storage model is that it’s not very high tech after the design stage. Solar installation is at roughly the skill level of plumbing. Wind is a bit more demanding, and much more exciting, but not rocket science.”

    And as ljsjl says: you will need “the old nuclear-power-in-Oz 2×4”  for your optimism to come to fruition. I personally do not want to be bludgeoned into nuclear but that would be the only way it would happen.

    Finally your statement above GB; “If we want all this we should make it a communist undertaking. Communist run, by the Australian government, financed only through surplus budgets, subcontracting out to Aussie sole traders.” Magical thinking. You will need a very powerful wand as I’d bet we’d have nuclear before communism.

    Graeme, thanks for reminding me of all the OTHER arguments against nuclear I routinely ignore.

  10. Apropros James up thread, wind and solar involve the repeated construction of lots of the same things over and over and over again. We’re pretty good at that, and it lends itself to continuous improvement (The new GE Haliade-X wind turbine is a pretty amazing piece of engineering IMO – assuming it doesn’t fly apart when the first one starts spinning later this year) and cost reduction in a way that nuclear power plants don’t. Siting constraints and low volume etc. mean that, although reactors may be the same in a block diagram sense, there are (probably) unique elements in every currently working reactor, which makes it harder to realise those production line efficiencies.

  11. H/t to Ronald for the Sydney Opera House analogy. Spot on, except that a significant nuclear programme involves building a whole family of Opera Hice at once, typically (to minimise NIMBY opposition) in fairly remote places.

  12. I’m not partisan for nuclear KT2. I’m partisan for getting infrastructure policy, and big project policy right. I like optical fibre for example. But I hate the way the NBN was handled. I like the idea that someone can generate power and sell it to the grid. But I hate the way that electricity has been privatised. I think our telephony market is a disgrace. If we went ahead with nuclear without major reform to the way we do things, I agree with most people here that this would be a disaster.

    But it is worth pointing out that the predictable disaster of setting up nuclear now, ahead of the major reform I would envisage, is not absolutely INHERENT to the technology itself. Thats worth emphasising. Its a shame that we aren’t in a position to get nuclear right, because its the technology that you can export everywhere without such a ghastly waste of resources. Coal should really stay put and be used pretty close to source. Its too heavy to be mining it and transporting it in solid form. I find it all upsetting. Most of what we do is either very wasteful or mostly dysfunctional.

  13. Re big projects: Eiffage (founded by Gustave Eiffel) built the magnificent motorway viaduct across the Tarn gorge at Millau on time, to budget and with no fatal accidents.
    They were probably helped by a hiatus in the timeline before construction started for a political argument about cost-sharing and tolls. This presumably gave Eiffage and Foster time to double-check the design, sub-contracts and so on. Still, strong evidence against the unlikely hypothesis of a general decline in the competence of French engineers.

    It’s gorgeous, do see it if you are in Southern France.
    (****tourisme-aveyron.com/sites/default/files/upload/a-voir-a-faire/decouvrir-l-aveyron/sites-a-visiter/viaduc-de-millau/1-viaduc-de-millau-decouvrir/diaporama/eiffage-cevm-foster-partners-d-jamme-5.jpg)

  14. The internal diseconomies of scale seem to now infect most government programs. Australia has not been spared. Of all these the one that seems to surface most often is simple incompetence. Contracts are poorly negotiated, oversight is often inadequate and budgetary discipline is lax. One tends to doubt the competence of beaucrats in Canberra and other state government centers. But often it is the responsible government minister that is the root of all these problems.
    Well published stuff up abound to such an extent that they have lost a lot of their shock factor. The most publicized ones this century include the federal “pink bats” fiasco, the Sydney tram comedy and many other PPP disasters. External diseconomies of scale of course make it much worse but are not always the most egregious factors. Of course all of this does not bode well for Australia’s choice to build the next generation of our submarines.

  15. The incompetence of government under neoliberalism is not a bug. It’s a feature. It was the intention of the neoliberal intelligentsia to render most of government incompetent and incapable. That way, the oligarchs could appropriate more wealth for themselves, pay less taxes, tell government what do (rather than permit democracy), rort government contracts at extortionate rates, create boondoggles for more rorts and avoid regulation and oversight. Incompetent government is a capitalist’s dream… until the whole country collapses… but capitalists don’t look that far ahead.

  16. Government is, in most cases, the biggest organisation and its operations affects most aspects of people’s lives in a country. Hence the fact that “country building” will always be driven by government will never change. Whether it be the subsidies that supported German and Japanese car industry for them to lead the world, or be the US, Australia and UK etc. where government was driving deregulation and privatisation that created the leading financial markets (with debatable benefits) in the world.

    However, democratic governments aren’t necessarily incompetent, but it is the result of majority people who elected incompetent people to govern. In the last election, the ALP under Shorten took sensible policies to the election, and many in the frontbenchers are competent at their job, but the majority people chose to re-elect LNP for a third term.

  17. As I see it govt depts have been merged, shrunk or completely disappeared to reduce the costs of labour, with all its entitlements, from their budget. Unfortunately, while outsourcing design and management has had efficiencies, the Govts ability to properly formulate a proposal then progress it through contract to completion has also been diminished. Hence the red faces of the Sydney light rail where the contractor rightly hit the govt for costs associated with latent conditions.

    Doing away with the public service to save a few $$ will leave the MPs stranded.

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