Another nuclear renaissance?

And did environmentalists kill the last one?

There has been a lot of talk lately about a revival of nuclear power, partly in response to the need to replace the energy previously supplied by Russia, and partly as a longer-term response to climate change. To the extent that this means avoiding premature closure of operational nuclear plants, while coal is still operating, this makes sense. But new nuclear power does not.

The misconception that nuclear makes economic sense remains widespread, but has been refuted many times. Less remarked on is the misconception is that the big obstacle to nuclear power is opposition from environmentalists.

Environmentalist opposition was a big factor in the decline of nuclear power in the late 20th century, but not since then in most places (Germany is the most important of these).

In the US, nuclear power has had bipartisan support at least since 2002 when GW Bush launched the (hopeless overoptimistic) Nuclear Power 2010 program, giving rise to talk of a ‘nuclear renaissance’.

As it turned out, only two projects (each with two reactors) got off the ground under this program. One was abandoned with a loss of billions of dollars, and the other will supposedly be completed by 2023. As far as I can tell, there was no effective opposition to either project except from consumers objecting to the massive costs. The Obama Administration gave continued support to nuclear power, which has continued under Trump and Biden

Similar points may be made about the UK. A number of projects were proposed in the early 2000s. Most have been abandoned, and the only one to proceed so far (Hinkley C) is hugely expensive. Searching for protests against the project, I found that somewhere between 100 and 400 people blockaded the site for a couple of days in 2011, long before construction started. More interestingly, workers at the site staged in a sit-in in 2018, when they were sent home without pay because of snow It’s clear that environmentalist opposition was not a big problem

This is unsurprising.E nvironmentalists may not be keen on nuclear power, but are far more concerned about coal, oil and gas. But these aren’t the only energy sources that have been obstructed by protests. NIMBY objections have been a huge obstacle to wind power, effectively prevent onshore wind in the UK and (until recently) offshore wind in much of the US. Solar power has been obstructed by utilities concerned about the impact on profits, as well as being the subject of vitriolic attacks from the political right.

It’s arguable that concern about nuclear safety following the Three Mile Island meltdown resulted in higher costs. But in the light of the subsequent disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, it’s hard to make the case that safety standards should be relaxed.

Given all this, why are we seeing so many announcements of new nuclear power programs? My best guess is that is part of a political package which includes life extension for existing reactors and a general acceleration of permitting processes that have held up all kinds of energy developments. As with the last nuclear renaissance, I expect that the number of projects actually constructed will be tiny. The work of decarbonizing energy supply will be done almost entirely by the sun and the wind.

fn1. There are operating examples of small reactors, but these are made on a one-off basis and are expensive because they forgo size economies. The ‘modular’ idea is to counter this loss with the economic gains of high-volume production. So far, the required scale does not look achievable.

11 thoughts on “Another nuclear renaissance?

  1. In answer to your question JQ “why are we seeing so many announcements of new nuclear power programs?” 

    Noam Chomsky says “in short, ‘War is Peace’.( fn^NC at end

    A slight change let’s the cat back out of the bag. At least in Europe. We did the same. 

    The European Commision “political package” around taxonomy of “permitting processes” changed to allow for “green gas & nuclear” recently.

    JQ: “My best guess is that is part of a political package which includes life extension for existing reactors and a general acceleration of permitting processes that have held up all kinds of energy developments”

    Any excuse will do.
    “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
    — Ludwig Wittgenstein

    [replace dots in links]

    – 14 June 2022 EC Object (2) and 
    – 6th July the press release changes to “do not object”(1). 
    – 13th October 2022 “EU Taxonomy Labelling Gas and Nuclear as ‘Green’ Faces Legal Challenges”.(3.)

    Round and round on the lobby go round we go. It has taken years of lobbying and fissures to be widened for economic,  sunk cost, market, entrenched priors to see this go through. “18 Feb 2021 · … “changing community sentiment in Australia towards nuclear power. All technology options including the latest nuclear energy technologies …” 
    minerals org au (org- false language)

    Slowly slowly catch the monkey.
    – Finland in 2018 made similar classification changes for economic reasons.
    – Denmark has followed suit.
    – Sweden has so much nuclear waste they did too and are building a 1,000 year storage facility backed by … nuclear corporation, again with slight classification change.
    – France has so much old nuclear, the replacement is a great market and nuclear lobby therefore strong.

    The Australian Energy Market Commission,  (who’s Chair is via law firm Allen’s and CEO via JFK School of Governance)
    allow for:
    “Rule change projects
    “Anyone, including consumers, governments and industry participants, can request a change to the energy rules. This page lists all pending, open and completed rule change requests.”
    aemc gov au/our-work/changing-energy-rules/rule-changes#

    Shall we apply?

    “The Climate Action Network Europe wrote that the EU Commission “sacrifices the scientific integrity of the taxonomy on the altar of fossil gas and nuclear lobbies” and failed to “reorient financial flows towards genuinely climate-positive investments.”
    dw com/en/european-commission-declares-nuclear-and-gas-to-be-green/a-60614990

    1. “Taxonomy: MEPs do not object to inclusion of gas and nuclear …
    europarl europa eu › press-room
    6 July 2022 · The European Parliament did not object to the Commission’s Taxonomy Delegated Act to include specific nuclear and gas energy activities…”

    2. “Taxonomy: MEPs object to Commission’s plan to include gas …
     europarl europa eu › press-room
    14 June 2022 · The complementary Taxonomy Delegated Act was put forward by the Commission on 9 March 2022 and proposes the inclusion, under certain conditions”

    3. “EU Taxonomy Labelling Gas and Nuclear as ‘Green’ Faces Legal Challenges
    OCT 13TH 2022

    “On Friday, Austria submitted a lawsuit to the Court of the European Union, asking for an overturn of the contentious EU taxonomy. 

    “Approved in July, the legal text designated natural gas and nuclear as environmentally sustainable energy sources, encouraging investments in these energy sources. Under the EU taxonomy, new nuclear and gas-fired plants built through 2030 will be recognised as a transitional energy source as long as they are used to replace dirtier fossil fuels such as oil and coal.”
    earth org/eu-taxonomy-legal-challenges/

    As for the good ol’ USA, the market, ‘freedom’, lobbying and regulatory capture so strong, your questions JQ are almost moot.

    ● fn^NC
    “Our yearning for democracy is accompanied by a no less profound yearning for peace. And the media also faced the task of historical engineering to establish this required truth. We therefore have phenomena called ‘peace missions’ and the ‘peace process’. These are terms that apply to whatever the United States happens to be doing or advocating at some moment… in short, ‘War is Peace’.
    Noam Chomsky
    azquotes com/author/2834-Noam_Chomsky/tag/language

  2. I’ll restate that prior to EC taxonony changes in 2022, Ukraine war energy disruptions etc, by 2018 Finland & Australia had already incorporated taxonomiic changes for inclusion of nuclear as a transition fuel and therefore expect “many announcements of new nuclear power programs”(JQ).

    And this sets up “55% of investors surveyed by Natixis intend to use the taxonomy in their investment processes for SFDR funds (article 8 or 9)”.

    Expect “many announcements of new nuclear power programs” (JQ). Even if a small subset of funds the lobbyist fraternity continues to disrupt low carbon and spread FUD. Ala tobacco play book.

    55% quote above from;
    “Changing investors’ perceptions on nuclear in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Taxonomy inclusion”

    03 Jun 2022 
    Antonin Brisson-Félix,
    Gratien Davasse,
    Laurence Ribot,
    Thomas Girard


    “Nuclear energy presently accounts for a very low share of sustainable funds’ assets (<2%) classified as article 8 and 9 [2]. Nonetheless, ESG or sustainability-minded investors’ appetite may evolve under the dual effects of the EU regulation and the war in Ukraine

    "55% of investors surveyed by Natixis intend to use the taxonomy in their investment processes for SFDR funds (article 8 or 9), both to identify relevant activities and define exclusion thresholds. As part of their “green bond funds”, several investors are even considering setting targets of green bonds aligned with the Taxonomy..

    "Table of contents 
    [All ToC linked]

    I    –  The EU Taxonomy: a beacon in the mess of SFDR funds classification  
    II   –  Despite a very low exposure of SFDR funds to nuclear activities…
    ● III  –  … Nuclear energy starts to appear as a key enabler of the energy transition ●
    IV  –  Nuclear activities inclusion in the European Taxonomy as a source of contention

    I – The EU Taxonomy: a beacon in the mess of SFDR funds classification

  3. Any nuclear renaissance will be from more bipartisan acceptance of the climate problem and commitment to emissions reductions from people who have mostly been opponents – greater actual support for nuclear being a counter-intuitive outcome from the successes of renewable energy. Nuclear supporters can come out from behind the Wall of Denial. Their principle competition – fossil fuels – is losing their support. They’ve held to “should use nuclear” as a principle complaint of the climate policies of others that they will come to their own climate policy with blinkered thinking about it.

    It probably won’t be enough; to become a major emissions reduction option it needs mass produced, fast to install versions that are competitively priced but renewable energy options are not cooperating – neither failing spectacularly, nor failing to keep getting better. And high renewables energy grids will not much suit them; the profit making opportunities are being reduced by wind and solar to shorter periods over the day/night cycle and shorter periods over the seasonal cycle. Fast response and coping with time sitting idle is needed and I’m not sure they can be done that way.

  4. Ken Fabian: “Renewable energy options are not cooperating – neither failing spectacularly, nor failing to keep getting better.”

    Martin Green’s latest chart of solar cell conversion efficiencies:

    Most of the cell types have little commercial relevance. Three types that do:

    These are lab cell records. Commercial cells in mass production will lag by a couple of years, and whole panels will be a couple of points lower than cells. But up to now, panel efficiencies have tracked lab cell progress pretty well. Consumers can readily buy panels over 22%. Looks like “getting better” to me.

    I could easily find similar charts of steady technical progress in wind energy and batteries.

  5. “fn1. There are operating examples of small reactors, ” so after the bombs go off “Blue-green algae sealed within a small container have powered a computer for six months”, will sell like – batteries?

    How about organism prior to seaweed? Where I live blue green algae is a death knell for rivers. And is the original self regenerative renewable “operating examples of small [ solar] reactors”.. a  cell’…

    “Computer powered by colony of blue-green algae has run for six months

    “Blue-green algae, a type of cyanobacteria, set in a container on a windowsill powered a computer continuously for six months using photosynthesis

    “Blue-green algae sealed within a small container have powered a computer for six months. Similar photosynthetic power generators could run a range of small devices cheaply in the coming years, without the need for the rare and unsustainable materials used in batteries.

    “Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues built a small enclosure about the size of an AA battery out of aluminium and clear plastic. Inside, they placed a colony of a type of cyanobacteria called Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 – commonly known as “blue-green algae” – which produce oxygen through photosynthesis when exposed to sunlight.

    “The device was placed on a windowsill at the home of team member Paolo Bombelli during a covid-19 lockdown in 2021, and stayed there from February to August. It provided a continuous current across its anode and cathode that ran an Arm microprocessor.

    “The researchers have experimented with creating a similar enclosure from empty plastic bottles and believe that effective devices could be produced very cheaply, with commercial application possible within five years. They have also found species of algae that create higher currents.

    Journal reference: 
    Energy & Environmental Science,
    DOI: 10.1039/D2EE00233G

    “Cyanobacteria are the first organisms known to have produced oxygen. By producing and releasing oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, cyanobacteria are thought to have converted the early oxygen-poor,reducing atmosphere into an oxidizing one, causing the Great Oxidation Event and the “rusting of the Earth”,[14] which dramatically changed the composition of the Earth’s life forms.[15]

    “The cyanobacteria Synechocystis and Cyanothece are important model organisms with potential applications in biotechnology for bioethanol production, food colorings, as a source of human and animal food, dietary supplements and raw materials.[16]Cyanobacteria produce a range of toxins known as cyanotoxins that can pose a danger to humans and animals.”

    “Blue-green algal red alert issued for Chaffey Dam and The Peel River downstream of the storage
    16 November 2022

    “WaterNSW has issued a Red Alert advisory for high levels of potentially toxic blue-green algae for Chaffey Dam located 35 kilometres South-East of Tamworth. The Peel River below the storage is also on Red Alert (High Alert), water users below the storage should seek alternate water for stock and domestic purposes.”

  6. Ken Fabian: – “Nuclear supporters can come out from behind the Wall of Denial.

    I’d suggest that nuclear proponents would need to also acknowledge that nuclear technologies:

    * are very expensive – see CSIRO’s GenCost 2021-22;
    * are very slow to deploy – 10+ years for experienced countries & 15-20 years for inexperienced countries like Australia;
    * are commercially uninsurable;
    * rely on finite fissile fuels that are not sustainable long-term;
    * increase the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation; and
    * leave a toxic waste legacy that will long outlast any energy benefits gained.

    An analysis by physicist and University of British Columbia Professor M.V. Ramana, published in a perspectives paper titled Small Modular and Advanced Nuclear Reactors: A Reality Check, in IEEE Xplore on 9 Mar 2021, that examines some of the claims being made by nuclear technology proponents, with a particular focus on the economic challenges. It briefly discusses the technical challenges confronting advanced reactor designs and the many decades it might take for these to be commercialized, if ever. It concludes with:

    All of these problems might just end up reinforcing The Economist magazine’s observation from the turn of the century: “nuclear power, which early advocates thought would be ‘too cheap to meter’, is more likely to be remembered as too costly to matter”

    An op-ed by John Quiggin, published in Independent Australia on 9 Jun 2021, included:

    Nuclear power ceased to be a realistic option at least a decade ago. The only reason it keeps being raised is to obscure the necessity of a rapid and comprehensive shift to solar and wind energy. Nuclear power is not a realistic energy source. Rather, it has been a stalking horse for coal and more recently, gas.

  7. Geoff, “support” for nuclear is going to include a lot that is unhelpful and insincere for a long time to come. Too much a case of insisting on the most expensive, slowest to build and most unpopular option for the sake of delay – “too bad, we have to keep supporting fossil fuels until then”. I think that insincerity is still more feature than flaw; it won’t overly upset the base that has been taught to resist arguments about climate based on facts, science or reason. But it won’t win over those who are legitimately concerned about climate change, not even those that want to see greater use of nuclear. Without the underlying commitment to emissions reductions we won’t believe they mean it.

  8. Ken Fabian: – “I think that insincerity is still more feature than flaw; it won’t overly upset the base that has been taught to resist arguments about climate based on facts, science or reason.

    The other issue is that nuclear cannot be deployed fast enough to compensate for the expected closure of several aging, increasingly unreliable and more costly to operate coal-fired plants. Waiting for new nuclear power to become operational increases the risks of the ‘lights going out’.

    Per the AEMO’s generating unit expected closure year data (dated 31 Oct 2022), the NEM’s coal-fired generator currently expected order of closure during the 2020s and 2030s is:

    * Liddell (NSW), remaining 3x 420+ MW units LD04, LD01, LD02, announced closure 2023 Apr 01
    * Eraring (NSW), 4x 720 MW units ER01, ER02, ER03, ER04, announced closure 2025 Aug 19
    * Callide B (QLD), 2x 350 MW units CALL_B_1, CALL_B_2, expected closure by 2028
    * Yallourn W (VIC), 2x 360 MW units YWPS1, YWPS2 & 2x 380 MW units YWPS3, YWPS4, expected closure by 2028
    * Vales Point B (NSW), 2x 660 MW units VP5, VP6, expected closure by 2029

    * Bayswater (NSW), 4x 660 MW units BW01, BW02, BW03, BW04, expected closure by 2033
    * Gladstone (QLD), 4x 280 MW units GSTONE1, GSTONE2, GSTONE3, GSTONE4, expected closure by 2035
    * Loy Yang A (VIC), 3x 560 MW units LYA1, LYA3, LYA4 & 1x 530 MW unit LYA2, expected closure by 2035
    * Tarong (QLD), 2x 350 MW units TARONG#1, TARONG#2, expected closure by 2036
    * Tarong (QLD), 2x 350 MW units TARONG#3, TARONG#4, expected closure by 2037

    Advocating for nuclear power for Australia is risking our energy security (and thus our national security).

  9. Geoff, I agree; failure to truly back the available options – renewables – risks our future energy security and makes planning and implementation based on the full range of available options harder.

  10. From the AFR on coal closures;

    “ Don’t let fossil fuel plants retire too early: EnergyAustralia
    Colin PackhamNov 24, 2022 – 3.48pm

    Closure contracts are needed to give Australia enough time to develop new renewable generation, EnergyAustralia’s MD Mark Collette says.

    To bide time, Mr Collette said Australia must widely adopt so-called closure contracts, that would help to ensure that a generator did not exit the system until sufficient capacity could be brought online to replace it.

    “Closure contracts that the Energy Security Board has been exploring is needed. It offers insurance to the market that we aren’t withdrawing capacity that is needed until it is replaced,” Mr Collette told The Australian Financial Review.

    State moves

    Closure contracts have been used in some parts of the country. EnergyAustralia announced last year that it would close Yallourn in 2028 after striking a deal with the Victorian government which included some level of financial support and $10 million from EnergyAustralia to support workers.

    Queensland in September said the state would end its reliance on coal power by 2035, but would keep some generators in reserve.

    With closure contracts offering a planned and orderly exit of fossil fuel generators, Mr Collette said the federal and state governments must also accelerate work on a capacity mechanism,

    A capacity mechanism would reward power producers for having capacity available to generate power, not just for the power they produce. But it was dubbed “coal-keeper” and energy ministers in August vowed to redesign electricity market changes to remove coal.

    Federal Energy Minister Chris Bowen said the new plan would be unveiled before the end of the year. There are suggestions that the revamped model could apply only to new generators built – in effect rewarding renewable energy sources as they are the overwhelming type of new project being developed.

    But Mr Collette said greater urgency was needed, in comments that ramp up pressure on state energy ministers before they meet early next month.

    “The shared ambitions by energy ministers to accelerate the energy transition is wonderful, but we have a few challenges. We need to grease the wheels on investment to make sure our markets bring to life the flexible capacity needed to enable the renewables,” Mr Collette said.

    Should Australia adopt the flexible capacity mechanism, it would offer developers such as EnergyAustralia security that multibillion-dollar projects for things such as pumped hydro and batteries would be profitable.

    Some jurisdictions have already found success after offering incentives to renewable energy generators. In Victoria, a plethora of some of the world’s largest energy companies are scrambling to participate in its ambitious offshore wind market after the state made the energy source the centrepiece of its transition plan.

    Mr Collette said the flexible capacity mechanism was the primary development needed, but he warned of the issues around transmissions. Australia’s energy market operator has warned immediate work was needed on new transmission projects to unlock new renewable energy assets, but supply bottlenecks and local opposition risked many new builds.

    NSW in October said it would offer private landowners $200,000 for every kilometre of land over which they allowed transmission lines to be installed, but opposition remains.”

  11. The AFSSR -The Australian Financially & Socially Secure Review said;

    Should Australia adopt the flexible productivity mechanism, it would offer humans such as wage earners security that multibillion-dollar projects for things such as pumped hydro and batteries, aged care, medicos, would be not disadvantaged by coalkeeper or oother perverse incetives, and wages kept in line with inflation.

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