The last (I hope) extract from the climate change chapter of Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. I’m in two minds about whether this is really needed. The group of pro-nuclear environmentalists seems to be shrinking towards a hard core who can’t be convinced (and some of them, like Shellenberger turn out to have been concern trolls all along). But every now and then I run across people who seem open-minded enough, but haven’t caught up with the bad news on nuclear.
Debates about decarbonizing electricity generation inevitably raise the issue of nuclear power. Since nuclear power generates no carbon dioxide emissions (except in the construction phase) it is a potential solution to climate change, with a strong body of advocates.
Some of this advocacy may be dismissed as point-scoring. Rightwing pundits who oppose any action on climate change simultaneously promote nuclear power as carbon free, with the aim of embarrassing environmentalist. There is, however, a small but vocal group of nuclear power advocates who are convinced that a massive expansion of nuclear power is the only way to replace coal-fired power.
Nuclear power advocates point out that the health and climate risks of nuclear power generation are far less than those arising from burning coal. They are probably correct to say that it would have been better to continue building nuclear power plants in the 1990s and early 2000s than to undertake the massive expansion of coal-fired power that actually took place, although alternative strategies like a major push to improve energy efficiency might have been better still.
But that is irrelevant today. The choice is not between new nuclear and new or existing coal. It is whether to allocate investment to building nuclear plants or to accelerating the shift to solar and wind energy.
The key problem is not safety but economics. New plants are safer and more sophisticated than those that failed in the past, but they are also massively more expensive to build, and quite costly to operate. The capital costs of recent projects in the US, France and Finland (none yet complete) have been around $10/kw, compared to $1/kw or less for solar. And, whereas solar PV is essentially costless to operate, the operating costs of nuclear power plants are around 2c/kwH. Even when solar PV is backed up with battery storage, it is cheaper to build and to operate, than new nuclear.
The facts speak for themselves. Over the last decade, only two or three reactors have commenced construction each year, not even enough to replace plants being retired. This isn’t the result of pressure from environmentalists or alarm about the safety of nuclear plants. The slowdown is evident in countries like China, where public opinion has little influence on policy decisions, and in countries where public opinion is generally favorable to new nuclear power. China failed to reach its 2020 target of 58 GW of installed power, and currently has only about 15 GW of nuclear power under construction. That compares to 55 GW of new solar and wind capacity installed in 2019 alone.
It is clear by now that large-scale nuclear reactors have no future. The last hope for nuclear power rests on Small Modular Reactors. The idea is that, rather than building a single large reactor, typically with a capacity of 1 GW, smaller reactors will be produced in factories, then shipped to the site in the required number. The leading proponent of this idea is Nuscale Power, which currently has a contract with UAMPS to supply a pilot plant with a dozen 60MW modules.
It remains to be seen whether SMR’s will work at all. Even if they do, it is not clear that the reduced costs associated with off-site manufacturing will offset the loss of the scale economies associated with a large boiler, let alone yield power at a cost competitive with that of solar PV.
In any case, the issue is largely irrelevant as far as the climate emergency is concerned. NuScale’s pilot plant, with a total capacity of 720 MW, is currently scheduled to start operation in 2029. Large-scale deployment will take at least a decade more
If we are to have any chance of stabilising the climate, coal-fired power must be eliminated by 2030, and electricity generation must be decarbonized more or less completely by 2035. SMRs, if they work, will arrive too late to make a difference.
None of this means that we should be in a hurry to close down existing nuclear power plants. Whenever there is a choice between closing down a coal or gas plant and closing down a nuclear plant, the best choice is to reduce carbon-based generation. A properly operating carbon price would make this clear.