Nuclear power and the Ukraine war

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has upended all kinds of certainties, created new possibilities, and closed off old ones. We can certainly see this in relation to nuclear power. Here are a few developments related to the war

  • Russia’s capture of the Chernobyl plant, and the associated fire, have raised new concerns about nuclear safety
  • Belgium has announced that its planned closure of a nuclear plant will be deferred, possibly until 2035, in order to reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas. There have been hints that Germany might do something similar
  • Finland has cancelled its proposed Fennovoima nuclear plant which was to be built using Rosatom’s VVER technology. Coincidentally, a few days ago, the Olkiluoto EPR plant was connected to the grid, twelve years late and way over budget

My guess is that the need to wean Europe off Russian gas over the next few years will outweigh enhanced concerns about safety.

On the other hand, the implications for new nuclear power are unambiguously bad. Projects started now can’t come in time to help with the transition from Russian gas, and the safety concerns will add to cost

Looking ahead, no one will want to deal with Rosatom any time soon, and Chinese proposals are also coming under more scrutiny. The cost over-runs on EPR plants create huge difficulties there also. These come together in Hinkley C (EPR) where hte UK government is trying to push China’s CGN out of the project, but having trouble attracting private finance to replace it.

The great remaining hope is Small Modular Reactors, most notably those proposed by Nuscale. But this hope has been around for a long time, with the arrival date always about 8 years in the future.

25 thoughts on “Nuclear power and the Ukraine war

  1. Is there a name for the opposite of the sunk cost fallacy, where a present action is not undertaken because it relies on previous spending which was a mistake? This seems to be what is happening with nuclear power in Europe. Given their capacity for producing low-carbon energy, surely the nuclear plants should be running at full capacity for as long as they are able to. Instead they have been mothballed for fear of possible accidents while ignoring the very certain impacts of climate change. Of course this isn’t an argument for building new nuclear plants – the numbers don’t add up and the safety concerns are real – but the existing ones should be blazing away 24/7, surely.

  2. Russias play on Chernobyl just goes to show how vulnerable and fragile Nuclear power stations are and how an aggressive belligerent can use these facilities to their advantage.

    Earlier critics have been proven right, nuclear power is a massive security liability, it can be overwhelmed then weaponised and used against a nation.

  3. According to media reports, the largest nuclear power reactor is in the South-East of the Ukraine. Bombs landed also close to this facility. No increased risk has been reported. Whether this is due to luck or ‘precision bombing’ seems to be an unresolved question.

    It may well be some EU countries may extend the timeframe for the decommissioning of nuclear reactors at considerable costs. I can’t see at present this option would change much.

    According to media reports, the German industry is not keen on the idea of huge maintenance expenditure/investment of the few operating reactors, which would be necessary to extend their operating lives. The ‘traffic light coalition’ (Red = SPD, Yellow = FDP and Green = The Greens) federal government is not keen on this idea either. The cost of electricity production is too high (uncompetitive).There are now plans for two LNG facilities to be constructed as fast as possible in port cities in North Germany. The current Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Change and Deputy Chancellor, Robert Habeck (Greens) is at present in Qatar (also an authoritarian state!) to negotiate gas and oil supplies for the Northern hemisphere winter. There are plans to speed up the supply of renewables in Germany. Heavy industry is apparently interested in green hydrogen and I understand one plant is operating with this technology. There are also energy saving measures in the policy pipeline such as promoting and subsidising heat pumps and insulation of existing buildings. None of this looks to me like anybody being prepared to re-enter nuclear power generation.

    For quite some time, France has to deal with serious maintenance issues of their reactors. For example in November last year 20 out of 58 reactors were not in operation for this reason.
    https://www.powermag.com/frances-nuclear-storm-many-power-plants-down-due-to-quality-concerns/
    At one stage President Macron spoke of switching from nuclear reactor generated electricity (currently about 75%) to renewables. Perhaps we hear more on this after the presidential election.

    Does anybody remember Desertec? The project idea is to generate renewable energy (photovoltaic) in the Sahara and deliver it to Europe. We may hear of a revival of this project in the near future.

    Obviously, central heating systems that use gas or oil cannot be transformed quickly into an electric system. However, having lots of little electric heaters, which can be produced quickly at ‘affordable’ prices, would save a lot of gas and oil in the household segment of the market in Europe, if there would be enough electricity..

  4. Looking ahead, no one will want to deal with Rosatom any time soon

    Why? Most of Asia, Africa, and South America certainly are not participating in the sanctions against Russia; India is negotiating a new oil purchase agreement. It might be more reasonable to say that the Anglosphere and the EU will not want to dear with Rosatom time soon.

  5. “Does anybody remember Desertec? The project idea is to generate renewable energy (photovoltaic) in the Sahara and deliver it to Europe. We may hear of a revival of this project in the near future. ”
    No way, this thing was already far more expensive than a more local solution when it was proposed. In recent years, the cost structure has shifted far further in favour of more local solution. Long distance grids are at least as expensive as when the project was proposed (with very questionable cost structures already at the time), while the costs of solar, battery storage and on/off shore wind have come way down.

  6. “Desertec reminds me a bit of Alantropa” [hix]

    I had never heard of Alantropa before opening the wiki page on Desertec after reading hix post. Apparently there are significant differences between the Alantropa project and Desertec.

    “…this thing [Desertec] was already far more expensive than a more local solution when it was proposed. In recent years, the cost structure has shifted far further in favour of more local solution.”

    Cost structure is one thing, capacity is another.

    How will the cost structure change, from the perspective of EU countries, if Saudi Arabia were to provide the capital expenditure for the solar power plants in their desert, instead of EU companies providing the capital expenditure for solar power plants in the Sahara? What is the ‘required rate of return’ on investment of Saudi Arabia compared to those of private companies? These numbers affect capacity as well as unit costs.

    IMHO, the objective of Desertec does not exclude ‘local’ (ie many small scale) production. Complementarity in supply rather than competition seems to me to be important. Furthermore, regarding the topic of this thread, the crucial cost comparison relates to nuclear power generation.

  7. Broadcast on SBS TV recently was a 3-episode series titled The Lakes with Simon Reeve. In Episode 3, Simon Reeve visits Sellafield’s aging facilities and some of the men and women tasked with clearing and securing over half a century of Britain’s nuclear waste. It seems it will take another estimated 100 years to clean-up this site.

    What shocked me was seeing cooling ponds shown in a serious state of decay holding highly radioactive material (that still hasn’t been fully categorized and documented) out in the open and exposed to the effects of corrosive sea salt spray.
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00123r2/the-lakes-with-simon-reeve-series-1-episode-3

    The added costs of security and decommissioning are often ignored. It’s an enormous burden that must be borne by future generations that will not gain any benefits from energy produced long ago.

  8. Yes, Geoff Miell, the security and decommissioning costs are often ignored. I should think the financial wizards’ costing tool box has no appropriate tool to even estimate the monetary costs. It is yet another example of naive market economics (‘financialised capitalism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘neoliberalism’, ….) generating wrong prices.

  9. seqaugur: Your stricture applies SFIK only to Germany and Belgium, which is changing tack. SFIK all other European countries, including the UK, France and Spain, are following the probably* correct policy of keeping existing nuclear plants running as long as this is safe. It is pointless to re-litigate this settled and consensus German policy. The German Green party, the driver of the Energiewende, started out as an anti-nuclear movement, and only later switched its focus to climate change. You can dream of an alternative history, but it would be a pleasing fiction.
    * It will only take one accident in the ageing legacy reactor fleet to prove the Germans right.

  10. Hydrogen news

    Not really OT, since if nuclear power is the dud Plan B for cutting Russian gas, Plan C is green hydrogen, which is not dud but still rather iffy. * But Australian scientists have come to the rescue!

    PVMagazine (https://www.pv-magazine.com/2022/03/16/australian-electrolyzer-invention-enables-green-hydrogen-under-us2-kg-by-mid-2020s/ , open access paper https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-28953-x#auth-Gerhard_F_-Swiegers ):

    “ New South Wales company Hysata is on track to commercialize the world’s most efficient electrolyzer, capable of producing green hydrogen for less than US$1.5 per kilogram by the ‘mid 2020s,’ it says. Moreover, the company believes it can reach gigawatt scale hydrogen production within a similar timeframe, saying its design is simple and suitable for mass manufacture today. The company was born out of an electrolysis breakthrough made at the University of Wollongong, south of Sydney, around three years ago. There, researchers led by Gerry Swiegers discovered hydrogen could be produced far more efficiently using capillary-fed electrolysis.”

    The claimed reduction in electricity use is 15%, taking efficiency to 98% and cutting waste heat. The tech is elegant: each cell, a disc the size of a fat pizza, sits edge on in a shallow trough of water. A thin layer of porous plastic between the anode and the cathode wicks up the water to be broken down. Hydrogen and oxygen come out of the top. The High Energy Magic is that this arrangement stops the formation of bubbles that clog up the reaction in the Other Brand. To scale up, just lengthen the trough and add more pizzas. (No, they haven’t actually done this part yet.) Checking the parts list, the only scarce and expensive ingredient is a platinum catalyst, already needed in rival PEM electrolysers but not SFIK in cheapo alkaline ones. The plastic is polyether sulfone, a family of standard high-performance thermoplastics.

    It’s a shame that the timeframe imposed by the capitalist market economy is so leisurely. In a war economy – and what we are in is a war – a commissar offers Swiegers (Corleone style) a cost-plus contract for 5 GW of pizza electrolysers ASAP, in exchange for compulsory licensing of the IP.

    * Plan A is of course heat pumps, millions of them, this year.

  11. A tweet by US petroleum geologist yesterday:

    Every 1 mmb/d of disruption from Russia equates to $20-$25/b on the price.

    Diesel price has already surpassed highest levels in 2008.

  12. Ramesh Thakur:-
    “The U.S. would not have countenanced the emergence of another nuclear power with a stockpile of over 4,000 nuclear weapons, more than Britain, China and France combined. In effect Ukraine would have struggled to survive as an international pariah state. The whole history of the region would have been so different that the deterrent claim for the events of 2014 and 2022 simply cannot be constructed as a credible counterfactual narrative.

    “That said, Russia’s aggression will damage the already enfeebled efforts to promote the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons and could also revive interest in proliferation among some countries. ..

    This article is reposted with permission from the Korea Times. See https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2022/03/197_325094.html
    https://johnmenadue.com/ukraine-and-nuclear-risks/

  13. However wealthy Putin is, he has no reason to fear the economic collapse of the Russia, for he can plunder whatever he wants from its carcass. Not so for the citizens. This is why it is crazy to think about Putin’s actions as if he gives a sh*t about his offshore wealth. He is 68, maybe 70. What does he care about super-yachts or islands, when he can continue to live in splendor? What would he care about the people who starve, if he retains his own dacha, his retreats in the Ural Mountains? I doubt he would care one whit.

  14. Did not realice there were plans to extend destertec to Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia plans to build a hcdc cable to central Europ, good luck. https://www.luftlinie.org/M%C3%BCnchen/Saudi-Arabien
    Back to the slightly less out there parts of destertec:
    Why would one build wind and solar generation in Tunisia for Italy or for Portugal and Spain in Marocco? Those got enough great, diversified locations on their own. The local dictators in Marocco and Tunesia are not going to say: Hey no German companies (or more realstic, German government throwing money at the companies), we will not let you build wind and solar generation for a fee in the middle of nowhere in our country. Nothing to loose for them. Italy and Spain would be puzzled why they should buy electricty from there at a price that can finance the costs of a long distance cable on top of costs similar to those of local generation. The only thing that happened regarding Solar Thermal, a core of the initial splashy anouncement is that Siemens tanked a couple of billion on a predictable non starter and got far less euphoric about that desertec thing. What did the marketing people demand from the German government again to build desertec – think it was some 20 cent per kw/h out of country feed in tariff….? Norway or the Netherlands are going to help out aswell at that price point of we insist. Or to be more acurate they can insist to threated at least as good as African dictators thanks to EU law.

  15. Off topic but I think the nuclear power problem that many of us are concerned with is the possibility that large parts of the world could be annihilated in a nuclear war. Putin and some of his cronies have made explicit threats and there are fears about Putin’s reactions should he be backed into a corner with a losing war on his hands. The MAD doctrine seemed to provide an equilibrium for a time but that is now apparently not working. If Putin launches an attack, the predictable US/Nato response will be to wipe Russia off the face of the earth. The stuff of nightmares but increasingly real.

  16. An invading force could occupy an existing nuclear power station and through a number of actions, or lack thereof, cause it to malfunction.

    The threat of this is much the same as that of a nuclear weapon; existing installations have the potential to be weaponised and used against the defending force.

  17. «the need to wean Europe off Russian gas over the next few years will outweigh enhanced concerns about safety. […] Looking ahead, no one will want to deal with Rosatom any time soon, and Chinese proposals are also coming under more scrutiny.»

    Sometimes I hear european nationalists, in particular of the english brexitist variety, argue that will mean sole USA control of the vital energy supplies of european countries, and somewhat bigger profits for USA energy and other companies at the expense of european businesses and consumers, once russian supplies of energy and chinese supplies of products are eliminated.

    So what! In realpolitik european countries are already USA protectorates and will continue to be so for decades if not centuries. It is the right of the USA and its corporates to want even more control of and even more profit extracted from european economies in “exchange” for USA “protection” (“Make America Great Again”, “America First”!). This not not going to ruin the european protectorates, that are are treated a lot better by the USA empire than the less developed ones that are resource rich.

  18. Blissex,

    Two points. One, Australian gas going to China could be re-directed to the EU. Australia exports about 30.7 million tonnes of LNG to China. The EU was importing 155 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Russia before the current war. Australia’s contribution could help along with contributions from other countries. Two, the EU can accelerate its transition to renewable energy. The problem is not insuperable.

  19. «Australia’s contribution could help along with contributions from other countries. Two, the EU can accelerate its transition to renewable energy. The problem is not insuperable.»

    As long as Australia and “other countries” are willing to sell gas and oil to Europe at the same delivered price as the russians, and as long as “renewable” energy also cost sno more than that, no problem for european countries, but unfortunately as a rule LNG by ship (especially from as far away as Australia) is rather more expensive than gas by pipelines. For many people in european countries that is a price worth paying to punish the russians.

  20. oilprice.com post on Mar 27 headlined Rationing Looms As Diesel Crisis Goes Global, begins with:

    Earlier this week, Vitol’s chief Russell Hardy warned that a diesel shortage could trigger fuel rationing in Europe. Now, those warnings are multiplying, with fuel rationing no longer looking like an abstract idea. Europe is risking a blow to its economic growth, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing experts.

    https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Rationing-Looms-As-Diesel-Crisis-Goes-Global.html

    Europe imports about half of its diesel from Russia and about half of its diesel from the Middle East.
    Middle distillate stocks are on a decline in the United States too.

    “Diesel is not just a European problem, this is a global problem.”

  21. Quite the most interesting discussion I’ve read concerning Russia and the Ukraine.
    It is about the first thing I’ve read that attempts to salvage something in the way of future directions, from this lamentable politics and even more lamentable media/ press so-called coverage.
    So tired of MSM, Morrison etc and all the smoke.

  22. When i see news, videos or photos about what’s going on in Ukraine, i just can’t think on why such things happened.
    Once i saw a video where russian citizens were verbally harrassing a Ukraine citizen on some randomized video call (like omegle)

  23. JQ: – “My guess is that the need to wean Europe off Russian gas over the next few years will outweigh enhanced concerns about safety.

    And Russian oil too.

    Tweeted today by US petroleum geologist Art Berman:

    EIA: world liquids production +1.2 mmb/d by June & +3.1 mmb/d by December.
    Russia output to decrease -0.9 mmb/d by June and -1.3 mmb/d by December.

    US crude oil production growth will likely come from ‘tight’/shale oil, but it’s too light and not suitable for producing diesel fuels.

    China peaked in 2015. Norway peaked in 2001. I’m puzzled how further production growth could occur with China & Norway.

    I’d take the EIA’s outlook with some skepticism.

    Per S&P Global Commodity Insights, dated Apr 2, in an article by Rosemary Griffin headlined Russia delays publication of March oil output, export data, it includes:

    According to S&P Global Commodity Insights analysis, Russian crude shut-ins are expected at 2.8 million b/d from late April through end-2022, before moderating to 2 million b/d by end-2023.

    The IEA estimates that the war could lead to the shut-in of about 2.5 million b/d of Russian oil.

    Data released for February on March 2 showed output was up 0.5% on the month at 11.05 million b/d.

    Until the invasion, crude quotas under the OPEC+ agreement had been the main driver of output volume changes.

    https://www.spglobal.com/commodity-insights/en/market-insights/latest-news/oil/040222-russia-delays-publication-of-march-oil-output-export-data

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