Is nuclear power the answer

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.

23 thoughts on “Is nuclear power the answer

  1. No disagreement with your general stance, but my opinion:

    – your line which will enrage both nuclear power advocates and old nuclear power opponents. That means, pragmatically, you have to choose which of them you are more likely to persuade (rage being an obstacle to persuasion). This need not be dishonest, just a little tactful. I’d choose not to enrage your lefty readers as righties won’t generally be your readers (more’s the pity). So I’d be more agnostic in writing on safety. You can frame your argument more as “safety is disputed by politically interested parties, but fortunately that dispute is irrelevant to my argument. Even if nuclear is safer than solar …”

    – in comparing costs,use properly levelised costs (ie include costs of sufficent storage and new transmission). The comparison will, of course, still favour solar and wind. But it will go some way to counter the “but what about cloudy windless days” stuff that nuclear “base load” advocates are fond of.

    – and you should devote a couple of paras to the intermittency/demand patterns issue anyway

  2. John Quiggin,
    One aspect that I’d suggest is missing from your chapter on “Is nuclear power the answer” is on whether nuclear fuel availability is adequate to sustain continued operations of the global nuclear generator fleet long-term. The evidence I see indicates there isn’t enough high-grade uranium ores to sustain the nuclear industry long-term.

    Energy Watch Group in 2013 in their report “Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the Supply Outlook” included a look at the possible future global uranium production from Reasonable Assured Resources with extraction costs less than $80/kgU (yielding 2,015 ktU global supply), and less than $130/kgU (yielding a further 1,441 ktU), plus Inferred Resources with extraction costs less than $260/kgU (yielding a further 3.641 ktU). Figure 113 shows the historic and possible future development of uranium production and demand, showing near full depletion of global Uranium high-grade ores by the end of this century.

    Click to access EWG-update2013_long_18_03_2013up1.pdf

    A more recent report published in June 2020 by the World Nuclear Association titled “The Nuclear Fuel Report: Expanded Summary: Global Scenarios for Demand and Supply Availability 2019-2040”, indicates in “Figure 7: Reference Supply Scenario tU”, “Figure 8: Upper Scenario supply tU”, and “Figure 9: Lower Scenario supply tU”, that an “Unspecified Supply” is required in all scenarios to meet demand through to 2040. The “Unspecified Supply” is defined as:
     Unspecified secondary supplies.
     Idled production capacity.
     Expansion of production capacity.
     Reserve projects.
    Click on the Expanded Summary hyperlink:

    The thorium fuel cycle is immature, not yet ‘self-sustaining’ and decades away from being fully developed, if ever.

    It’s estimated that there is at least four billion tons of uranium in seawater, which is about 500 times the amount of uranium known to exist in land-based ores. Some proponents suggest uranium can be economically extracted from seawater. There are some pilot projects investigating the viability of uranium extraction from seawater, but to date there is no current technology for large-scale, economically competitive extraction.

  3. One little error — for capital cost it would be $10 a watt for nuclear and $1 a watt for solar not kilowatt.

  4. I’m not sure if that much of the nuclear industry is really thinking SMRs are the way forward; most of the industry in the West has collapsed though, so you are mostly just hearing from pro-nuke advocates more interested in rhetorical pointscoring than actually generating energy.

    But they do dominate the ‘debate’, so just pointing out over and over again that SMRs will be too late to be useful is clearly the approach to take.

    The last decade nuclear energy production actually increased slightly, so I’m not quite as confident it is a fully dead parrot.

    Although it looks unlikely, a more plausible scenario for nuclear resurgence is China changing its mind, given it is making noises about net-zero in 2060, and building a lot more boring large nuclear, and a few other countries following suit. It is expensive, but I think China is thinking more strategically than just ‘energy unit at the lowest marginal cost’. What won’t happen, of course, is nuclear being much more than a small fraction of generation, but even if it stays at 10% that’s a useful amount of approximately-zero-carbon power.

  5. There is also the problem of decommissioning nuclear power plants (even if they don’t have a major accident). Some countries may have enough suitable land mass to store their nuclear waste but others don’t have this resource. Are waste disposal costs included in the calculations? Or are these difficult to estimate costs at the time of decision making pushed into the future like ghg emissions?

  6. Agree with derridaderider on intermittency and firming, it’s much more important than the nuclear dead duck. Check out the 2017 Blakers paper. Note that Japan built 20GW of pumped hydro storage as backup for its large *nuclear* fleet. Nukes have to shut down at regular intervals for refuelling (usually timed for low summer demand), plus the more serious unplanned outages.

    Jinko have announced they expect to reach an annual PV production capacity of 30GW by the end of this year. That’s the equivalent of 10 1-GW power reactors. Time from factory gate to switch-on: one year at most. Jinko is a big company, but it’s not a monopolist, and competitors like Longi are close behind.

  7. “as carbon free, with the aim of embarrassing environmentalist”. Awkward phrasing but, more importantly ,the meaning obscure. What is the implied embarrassment?

  8. Without real and deep commitment to fixing the climate problem by the LNP and the Conservative Right nuclear has no chance in Australia. Taking the lead on the issue early rather than turning to denial and avoidance of responsibility would have given nuclear a good start; before RE got cheap enough, using the seriousness of the problem rather than downplaying it. Too late for that now. Now it is the zero emissions end game, competing for backup to lots and lots of wind and solar, ie competing with batteries, pumped hydro, demand response, efficiency, more flexible industrial processes and probably Hydrogen in a market that wants fast response, not steady baseload…

    If the LNP can come out from behind the Wall of Denial it will have to reassess the options – on the basis of what works, how hard it is, what it costs, what future development might do, not on the basis of how well it works as a rhetorical blunt instrument for whacking greenies. Likely there would be significant lingering popular support within the LNP but I can’t see it being enough.

  9. The point made in your penultimate paragraph (if a proposed energy technology is to be useful it must be in commercial use today, at scale) bears repetition and generalisation, and elevation into a principle. I feel some paragraphs in the introduction to this section to establish it would be worthwhile.

    That would allow you to deal with “sunk cost fallacy” based objections as well as “technology will save us” straw-grasping.

  10. As one might expect there is not much good news reportage for you on this at World Nuclear News.

    Is fusion a trojan horse for fission much the same as fission nukes can be for fossills? Here are a couple of recent items:
    “…He said: “Nuclear is of course a close to zero-carbon technology that could have a role to play. The questions being asked today are that you need to find the right [financing] model. France, which is the most exposed country when it comes to nuclear is delaying any answer on new nuclear until the next presidential mandate and you can see that it is a highly politically sensitive subject. But it is also very rational, given the inability so far to complete the existing projects, be it in Finland with Olkiluoto-3 or Flamanville in France. Look at those two projects and ask: Can we effectively build a new investment cycle for nuclear while it’s quite obvious that there are some technical/expertise weaknesses today in the industry?”…

    “We believe power networks will grow the most to connect and integrate renewables, while gas networks have more uncertainties in a decarbonised economy, and we see their long-term prospects depending on the rise of hydrogen…

    “The challenges include the fact that this energy transition is a political economy as opposed to the market economy that we know well. It will stem from energy efficiencies as well as decarbonisation and electrification of the economy. These challenges will be costly and will require government consensus.”
    “Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with nuclear power maintenance service provider Atox Company Limited regarding the transfer of its nuclear power business to Atox for an undisclosed sum. KHI said it will instead focus on the development of hydrogen technology.” (Are Kwaka also gonna get out of equipping fossils, undersea miners, and other nukes/weapons?)

    UK Treasury has come out briefing strongly for Nukes in response against the findings of a recent inquiry report. They will release in full in next few months, they say. Meanwhile, at Bojo:

  11. Someone needs to alert J.Q. that the banned Bird is back. He knows he is unwanted but just keeps coming back. Does he have nothing else to do but create sock puppets?

  12. mrkenfabian says:
    DECEMBER 9, 2020 AT 10:00 AM

    Yes, nuclear is just another delaying tactic (Wadddabout…?) designed to wedge the progressives/greens while allowing more coal to be dug up.

    With the blowout costs, security issues and delays in commissioning its just not worth thinking about.

  13. Is nuclear power the answer? No. We have been through this before. Of course, I understand the need to keep informing the public, many of whom have still not got this message.

    Overall though, the real concern is that we have no realistic way forward to de-carbonization. China alone, as the manufacturing engine of the world, will ensure we suffer severe and likely runaway climate change. They, and we of course, have no feasible way to de-carbonize in time.

    Click to access Smith94.pdf

    I really don’t know what to say or advise. Consume as little as possible is about the only advice I can give. I am trying to get my family to downsize its carbon footprint. No luck so far. In fact, we are still headed the other way. People simply won’t act. The governments won’t act and the market doesn’t work for this problem. That’s consistent with my thesis that we won’t change voluntarily and our system as it stands is endogenously unchangeable. Emissions won’t drop until forced to by disasters and shortages.

  14. mrkenfabian: “… competing for backup to lots and lots of wind and solar, ie competing with batteries, pumped hydro, demand response, efficiency, more flexible industrial processes and probably Hydrogen in a market that wants fast response, not steady baseload… ”
    A good firming list but misses a few things. Here’s mine, organised by riskiness.
    A. Negligible risk, already deployed at scale
    1. Pumped hydro
    2. Long-distance HVDC transmission allowing smoothing across time zones and anticyclones
    3. Trade (not very relevant to Australia, but more countries are like Denmark)
    4. Li-ion batteries
    5. Demand response and smart home/building management (eg smart hot water tanks)
    6. Overbuild of wind and solar. At LCOEs under 2c/kwh, overbuild and planned curtailment is cheap.

    B. Moderate risk: deployed in reasonably large pilots, but risks remain about costs and scaling
    7. Power-to-gas aka P2G (whether hydrogen, ammonia, or synthetic methane). Note that gases can be stored in salt caverns to cover several months’ demand, google Etzel
    8. Vehicle-to-grid aka V2G. The Dominion school bus programme in Virginia proves the concept IMHO
    9. Flow batteries
    10. Thermal storage in rocks, the ground or hot salt
    11. Geothermal (not a form of storage but a fully despatchable supply which can replace it)

    C. Long shots still in the lab
    12. Solid-state and new-chemistry batteries

    The claim that firming of intermittent wind and solar is a hard and unsolved problem is ridiculous. It’s *practically* difficult because there are so many feasible solutions. Each technology is on its own uncertain learning curve, so it’s impossible to guess what mix will work out cheapest by 2040.

  15. Any mix of renewables and storage solutions would work out better than runaway climate change. However, people are still talking about things other than climate change, the 6th mass extinction, sea level rise, plastic in oceans etc. Really, they shouldn’t be. They need to be obsessed to the exclusion of all else with the fight against climate change, civilizational collapse and extinction. We need to be dedicating 100% of our attention and economic activity to the changes needed. There’s no time and no spare resources for anything else. It’s zero hour.

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