Nuclear Power: Running on fumes?

This is a 12/1/10 re-post from the World Affairs Blog Network by Bill Hewitt.

nuke-costs.jpgI went to a debate on nuclear energy on Monday evening sponsored by the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia.  The Center is headed by Mike Gerrard, a force of nature in environmental law for over thirty years.

“Should nuclear power be an important component of U.S. strategy to combat climate change?” The pros, as ’twere, for nuclear were Susan Eisenhower, an old hand in power and proliferation circles, and Barton Cowan, a lawyer who’s been representing the industry for decades.  The skeptics — it’s not an inherently bad word, it’s just been tarred by those who would make you believe the earth is flat — were represented by Peter Bradford, a long-time utility industry regulator and a member of the Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar focused on nuclear disarmament, environmental, and energy policies at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The proponents, I’m sorry, but not surprised, to tell you, had nothing in the least convincing to say.

I have heard the arguments about reliability, for instance, for decades.  But, as Amory Lovins points out in his magisterial Four Nuclear Myths, although nuclear plants in the US have had a commendable capacity factor of over 90% in recent years, they have averaged about 10.6% downtime (during 2003-7), with 2.5% of that time unplanned.  Worldwide through 2008, according to Lovins’ reading of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s data, nuclear units were unexpectedly unable to produce 6.4% of their energy output.

Further, Lovins writes:

A broader assessment of reliability tends not to favor nuclear power. Of all 132 U.S. nuclear plants built-just over half of the 253 originally ordered-21% were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems. Another 27% have completely failed for a year or more at least once. The surviving U.S. nuclear plants have lately averaged ~90% of their full-load full-time potential-a major improvement for which the industry deserves much credit-but they are still not fully dependable. Even reliably running nuclear plants must shut down, on average, for ~39 days every ~17 months for refueling and maintenance. Unexpected failures occur too, shutting down upwards of a billion watts in milliseconds, often for weeks to months.

The argument that nuclear represents reliable “baseload” power is, as Peter Bradford pointed out in the debate, “rapidly losing relevance.”  He echoes Lovins in saying that the new combinations available in the deployment of the Smart Grid, distributed generation (DG), renewables, energy efficiency, demand-side management (DSM), etc. render the idea of one constantly streaming power source archaic.  As Lovins points out, the grid has anyway pretty much always been about a combination of generators.


Another argument from the nuclear proponents was that electricity demand forecasts from both the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the US DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) predict steep rises – as high as 40% – over the next several decades.  Peter Bradford noted in rebuttal that “demand forecasts are not destiny.”  Surprisingly little was said about energy efficiency during the evening, but it is pretty important to always keep in mind that there are massive, cost-negative opportunities in this area.  California, as folks from Al Gore to Stephen Chu, have pointed out, has not increased its per capita electricity consumption in three decades even though its economic output has doubled.

Another tired axiom — or Big Lie if you prefer — from the nuclear power industry, as well as from the coal and oil interests, is that renewables can’t get the job done.  As I have pointed out here on any number of occasions, renewables are blowing the doors down:  China could well have 230 GW of wind in just ten years, concentrated solar power (CSP) is on the march all over the world, including in North Africa with the Desertec Initiative, enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) and ground source heat pumps have virtually limitless potential, marine energy is everywhere coming into play, and PV is skyrocketing.  Nota bene:   Not only did new PV and wind installations vastly outstrip new coal and nuclear in 2009 in Europe, but those two sectors actually decommissioned more capacity than they added!  Further, as Pike Research pointed out recently:  “The global electric power industry is evolving from a financial and engineering model that relies on large centralized power plants owned by the utilities to one that is more diverse – both in sources of generation and ownership of the generation assets.”  As Amory Lovins and Siemens chief Peter L¶scher will attest, we are in the green revolution now.

Robert Alvarez had any number of compelling points to make regarding the monstrous costs involved in our global 60-year experiment with nuclear power.  Cleaning up, or even just stabilizing the wastes from nuclear power and weapons programs will require hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars.  Building new nuclear power in the US has a price tag of trillions.  Oh, and the loan guarantees that the US government wants to extend for new plant construction?  They have a greater than 50% chance of default.

Alvarez said that nuclear power is a “millstone” holding back the flourishing of other, better technologies.  I could not agree more.  I have hated nuclear power for 40 years but now more than ever.  Given the need to successfully address the specter of climate change, we are wasting precious time, money and expertise pursuing new nuclear.  Amory Lovins, as is so often the case, is eloquent on this point:

“¦expanding nuclear power is uneconomic, is unnecessary, is not undergoing the claimed renaissance in the global marketplace (because it fails the basic test of cost-effectiveness ever more robustly), and, most importantly, will reduce and retard climate protection.

— Bill Hewitt spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation

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43 Responses to Nuclear Power: Running on fumes?

  1. fj3 says:

    Since the environment provides so many natural services essentially for free or at very low costs, which if used correctly last forever with minimal environmental impact, spending huge amounts on complicated machines with terrible track records is not good economic and practical sense.

  2. Check up says:

    fj3 says:Since the environment provides so many natural services essentially for free or at very low costs, which if used correctly last forever with minimal environmental impact, spending huge amounts on complicated machines with terrible track records is not good economic and practical sense.

    cong…. my friend

  3. Matt says:

    The only real argument for nuclear is that it’s a base load which isn’t coal. For all the reliablility issues you listed, the output is still much more consistent than wind and solar which can have major output changes in 10s of minuets which is still very difficult to forecast and for slow power sources like coal and natural gas to throttle up or down in response too. Saying we can use all renewable because threre will be major advancements in distribution and storage seems a bit optimistic. Writing off nuclear now and forever because it wasn’t perfect in the past and still has issues seems a little too similar to critics of renewables (I realize that nuclear has worse consequences when it fails). I’m not saying nuclear is the answer I just think your underestimating the problems that come with installing a very peaking prone power source beyond 20-30% with current technology implementable at large scales.

  4. Mark Stewart says:

    A big problem with nuclear power is the very long development cycle. It takes 12-15 years to plan, permit, and build a plant. The result is that the minimum generation time for nuclear power technologies is 15-20 years, and probably much longer. This means the technology improves very slowly, and at great economic risk (who wants to borrow $10-15 billion to build a new design?). We are still building nuclear designs that would have been very familiar to a nuclear power engineer 40 years ago. Other energy sources, such as solar, have very short generation times, leading to rapid improvements and greater efficiencies in cost and operation. Heavy investment in alternative energy technologies will produce much more efficient and effective technologies within a few years, at much lower economic risk, while current research investments in Gen4 or Gen5 nuclear will produce new technologies in 20-30 years. The best argument against nuclear is the economics of sinking so many billions into one outdated facility.

  5. Anne van der Bom says:


    …wind and solar which can have major output changes in 10s of minuets which is still very difficult to forecast…

    Not true.

    The Germans predict wind power on an hour-by-hour basis one day ahead. It’s routine. You can also look at the real-time production data. There is a nice page for German solar power. Because it’s winter, there is not much to see now, but if you browse back a few months, you will see very smooth sinus waves appearing. No short-term variability at all. Nicely smoothed out because of the thousands of PV installations, dispersed all over the country.

    Spain has some nice pages to inform you. You will see that the variability of wind is in the same order of magnitude or less than the daily variability of demand, something the power companies have successfully dealt with for more than a century.

    One single wind turbine or PV installation can show indeed large fluctuations, but aggregated over a region or country, that largely disappears.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Nuclear is just a bad idea, mostly for economic reasons, but there are also issues of radioactive waste storage, limited uranium, and inadequate technical infrastructure for major expansion.

    The debate is not between nuclear proponents and real clean energy advocates. It’s between the bankers and the people. Bankers prefer nuclear, because of the loan guarantees and the off the shelf designs. With wind or solar, there are multiple new and competing approaches, which banks can’t evaluate. There are also limitations on the pace of nuclear plant development. Oil companies and their pawns in Congress like nuclear for that reason- wind and solar potential, by contrast, is unlimited.

    The main reason nuclear is hanging around at all is the big income for the financial industry. Banks love $10 billion projects, and get paid all the way through the project, including during predevelopment.

    It always comes back to the same problem. The wealthy have taken control of our once great country, and manipulated many of the casualties into believing that their troubles are caused by government, or people with different “values”. An awakening is needed, on all levels. Howard Dean is the only one I can think of who could accomplish it, and it would have to be through a third party.

  7. dbmetzger says:

    From earlier this month….
    India, France Sign Mega Nuke Deal
    India and France have signed landmark nuclear energy agreements, which pave the way for two reactors in India to be built by the French company Areva. The deals were made during French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Indi

  8. The US nuclear industry spent $48 million lobbying in 2007 alone. For an international perspective on the government-owned French nuclear industry see my article from 2009 on how nuclear steals investment dollars from renewables leaving France (and other countries) far behind.

  9. beneficii says:

    Isn’t there a major push toward developing thorium reactors? Those would eliminate many of the problems uranium reactors have.

    I understand that India is trying to develop it:

    I believe Norway is too.

  10. fj3 says:

    About energy supply consistency, hearsay has it that passive solar and other natural-service techniques have been known sufficient to supply over 90% of the heating of buildings for weeks in places like MIT back in the 1930s and probably early.

    Even more importantly, if stuff is designed well (especially with natural services in mind), when things go wrong, such as two weeks of cloudy days, it takes a minimal amount of effort get them working. Also, the cost for construction can also be the same or less than for badly designed things.

    Conventional space heating and transportation are absolutely awful wasteful design practices and a critical path for mitigating climate change will be undoing this stuff; not new investments in even more extremely wasteful machines.

  11. Berbalang says:

    If we were actually serious about replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power, we would have been using thorium instead of uranium in the fuel cycle. The main reason we use uranium is so we have the technology in place to produce uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons. Thorium is much more plentiful and produces less nuclear waste when used as a fuel.

  12. Anne van der Bom says:


    Imo, the most elegant solution for space heating is shown in the Drake Landing Solar Community

  13. J A Turner says:

    One huge problem with any massive power plant is that when it goes down, it takes a huge chunk of the grid with it. The more diverse and numerous the mix of generators, the better.

  14. fj3 says:

    12. Anne van der Bom, ” . . . the most elegant solution for space heating . . . ”

    You might find this a more elegant general “philosophy” for new homes on a piece of property with sun, trees, etc; other designers with more experience can provide much more detailing:

    1. Take about a year to observe the property for what the sun does, relationship of trees, other environmental features before you figure out how you would best want it to fit within the environment, placement, windows, doors, etc. of house.

    2. (General) Consider basic passive solar technique and place your house, eaves, etc with windows taking in the maximum amount of sun in winter and minimum sun during summer.

    3. Use existing trees etc. (if possible) to protect the house from the sun during summer and wind during the winter . . .

    4. Consider encouraging natural convection systems within house . . . correct amounts of insulation, possible heat reservoirs and buffering etc. . . .

    . . . stuff like this.

    Once you’ve figured out how to get the most from the environment essentially free, practically, and conveniently, then you can consider additional technology as necessary.

  15. JayZ says:

    If nuclear isnt the future, then why are the Chinese planning on spending $120 billion over the next ten years? The Chinese currently have 65,000MWE under construction and are planning on bringing another 80,000MWE online by 2020. Seems to me like they have a different idea on where the future lies.

  16. David Smith says:

    I think it was Bucky Fuller who said that that using nuclear power to boil water was like using a cannon to operate a light switch.

  17. pete best says:

    Here in the UK we are allegedly going to replace like with like, decomission the old build the new. Maybe the USA has enough land for its TW of electricity requirements from wind and CSP, Hydro, ground pumps and geological places etc but here in the UK CSP is limited but wind a real plus for us. New 500 ft high 10 MW wind turbines are looking to be built but any major solar technologies would be desertec based and that raises energy securtity issues.

    Nuclear has its place so long as it replaces coal.

  18. DreamQuestor says:

    Does anyone in the nuclear industry still seriously contemplate the concept of space-based nuclear reactors (nuclear reactors orbiting the earth and beaming the energy produced to Earth via microwave)? I vaguely recall reading about the concept in the late ’70’s or early ’80’s but I think most people scoffed at it as mere science-fiction.

  19. bruced says:

    What a strange analysis. Here’s an argument against modern nuclear power based on an analysis of 30+ year old plants. Considering the 20 year design+construction time, that’s a bit like saying we shouldn’t fly Airbuses because Tiger moths are unreliable. To see the state of the present nuclear technology look at where the Chinese have gone with their Westinghouse-designed AP1000s. Construction time and costs have been significantly reduced by the use of modularization and factory assembly lines. The Hubei Nuclear Power Equipment Company Ltd, based in Wuhan opened their 2nd factory for the modules that make AP1000 major structures just before Christmas. In terms of cost, construction aims to be 50 months from first concrete to fuel loading, then six months to grid connection for the first four units, with this expected to reduce significantly for the following units. At the moment construction is lagging! at 52-54 months. The cost of the first four is expected to be less than $2000/kW, with this reducing to $1600 for further units. So please. lets see some sensible figures if you are trying to discuss nuclear power relative to other forms on non-fossil fuel power.
    Concerning France vs Germany, France with ~90% nuclear has a much much lower CO2 per head than its European neighbors and has closed most of its coal-fired power stations. How many have Germany etc been able to replace through installation of renewables?
    And consider that China has forced the retirement of small inefficient coal-fired plants: 26 GWe of these was closed in 2009, making 60 GWe closed since 2006, cutting annual coal consumption by 69 million tonnes (Mt) and annual carbon dioxide emissions by 139 Mt.
    I’d also say a fight between proponents of renewables and nuclear is just sad as it delays ridding ourselves of CO2 emissions. We need whatever can be installed to be adopted as fast as possible. I write this from a country where large areas are either experiencing, recovering from or about to receive record flooding. And we have a large suspicion where that comes from don’t we.

  20. GT2211 says:

    The nuclear plants build time in part takes so long because of the huge amounts of regulations placed on them and the time taken to design each plant. China has shown that nuclear plants can be built quickly.

    Also we have plenty of uranium(and if not there is thorium) to last for a long time. See below.

  21. harvey says:

    China is in a *HUGE* push to develop 200 nuclear power plants by 2050:

  22. Paulm says:

    Why do we NEED nuclear?

    Spain has bolstered its credentials as a world leader in renewable energy by exporting electricity to France for the first time. Heavy rain and strong winds during 2010 meant that renewables – principally hydro, wind and solar power – met 35% of Spanish demand.

    Wind power rose by 18.5% in 2010 and now meets 16% of demand. Luis Atienza, managing director of Spain’s electricity grid, predicted that “within three years wind power will overtake nuclear as an electricity source”. At its peak, on November 9, wind power met 43% of demand.

    Heavy rains saw hydro-electrical production rise by 59% on 2009. Solar power, meanwhile, lags behind at only 3%, although some of the big solar plants have yet to come on stream.

  23. quokka says:

    I have to agree with bruced (#19):

    I’d also say a fight between proponents of renewables and nuclear is just sad as it delays ridding ourselves of CO2 emissions.

    In this context, I find Joe’s piece to be very disappointing and statements such as “Building new nuclear power in the US has a price tag of trillions.” to be a touch misleading. Building any low emission generation infrastructure will without any doubt whatsoever have a price tag of trillions. There is little indication that renewables are in general cheaper than nuclear. Certainly authoritative sources such as the IEA do not project that to be the case.

    As for the management of nuclear waste, the sane thing to do is develop reprocessing facilities based on the Pyroprocessing Technology pioneered at the US Argonne National Laboratories. This separates out the long lived actinides which then can be fabricated into fuel from the short lived fission products. The resultant high level waste decays to a safe level of radioactivity in a few hundred years and dealing with it is a fairly straight forward engineering problem. Whether the US likes it or not, other nations will pursue this route.

    And this is the bottom line – nations other than the US and especially the developing world will aggressively proceed with nuclear power. And not only the usual suspects of China and India, but also countries such as Bangladesh, desperately short of electricity, whose parliament has just voted unanimously to back the construction of two Russian VVER reactors. Why? Because in Asia in particular, nuclear is the lowest cost low emission technology and pretty much competitive with coal for new builds. Furthermore nuclear is far less sensitive to fuel cost than coal and a current coal spot price of over $100 per tonne must be giving pause to energy planners who will have to live with their decisions for decades.

    The US can sit on it’s hands or take advantage of some of the outstanding work done at places like Argonne and Oak Ridge and develop advanced reactors and fuel cycles and thereby make the worldwide deployment of nuclear power as inexpensive, sustainable, safe, low polluting and proliferation resistant as possible. What the US cannot do is stop the worldwide deployment of nuclear power.

    As a final comment, I consider it foolhardy to deny that world wide electricity demand is going to sharply rise regardless of best efforts at energy efficiency. The economic development of the world’s most populous nations and increasing global population combined with the highly desirable increasing use of clean electricity to substitute for fossil fuels in applications such as transport very strongly suggest that we are still a long way off a steady state in electricity production. To meet that demand nuclear is mandatory, otherwise say goodbye to a safe climate.

  24. Zach says:

    “Building new nuclear power in the US has a price tag of trillions.”

    To pick one item out of a dozen or so, where in the world does this statement come from?

    “I have hated nuclear power for 40 years but now more than ever.”

    To what extent is global investment in nuclear power decreasing investment in other carbon-free technologies? This is the second post here that seems to flatly state this. In the United States, at least, loan guarantees to build nuclear plants can be used as a legislative bargaining chip to *also* fund other carbon-free technologies. What’s the time horizon for a climate bill passing the Senate that doesn’t get Lindsay Graham and John McCain on board with handouts to nuclear power?

  25. quokka says:

    Stephen Leahy (#8)

    For an international perspective on the government-owned French nuclear industry see my article from 2009 on how nuclear steals investment dollars from renewables leaving France (and other countries) far behind.

    Far behind what? Other nations’ CO2 emissions from electricity generation. Yes, that would be true and has been true for more than 20 years. France – around 85 grams CO2/kWh. Name any other nation that is anywhere near the same ballpark without huge hydro capacity. There are none.

    As somebody who is deeply concerned about the climate problem, I find myself becoming increasingly incredulous of this kind of nonsense.

  26. William P says:

    A pretty dismal nuclear report! How in the world does France make such a success of using nuclear if this source is so bad? They get about 80% of their power generation from nuclear.

    From Wikipedia: “France’s nuclear power industry has been called ‘a success story’ that has put the nation ‘ahead of the world’ in terms of providing cheap, CO2-free energy.” France makes so much nuclear power they are able to export some, and they shut reactors because supply exceeds demand on occasion, according to the Wikipedia article.

    Another apparent nuclear success story is reactor use on US air craft carriers which go years between refueling. These reactors seem to operate trouble free.

    Yet another way to look at nuclear is the number of human illnesses and fatalities caused by nuclear. Compared to fossil fuel pollution it is a pittance, literally. This is true even taking potential long term impacts of radiation exposure from things like Three Mile island and Chernoble emissions. There are illness and fatalities (cancer), but still nothing compared to the millions affected by fossil fuel energy creation.

    Let’s keep an open mind on nuclear. However, with CO2 ramping up so quickly we may never get a chance to discover if nuclear could have saved us. When all is said and done, the last chapter regarding global warming is highly likely to entail survival for some through migration.

  27. Stephen Watson says:

    There are many problems with nuclear power. many of which have been alluded to here. But remember, nuclear power came into existence in an era of fossil fuel as as we move away from that for reasons of availability and/or CC then things will get very tricky. Think 50 years ahead, imagine oil and gas are almost gone and are used only for the most essential purposes now imagine machining, repairing and maintaining a fleet of nuclear stations and what that would involve. Think of the fact that cooling ponds have to be kept running for decades, without fossil fuels. Imagine the cleanup scenario using renewables only. And of course as energy availability declines, the economy will shrink, credit availability will shrink and who is going to pay to keep these cash guzzlers running, maintained and even insured?

    Nuclear is a zombie and it will finally die when all the fossil fuel powered smoke and mirrors suddenly vanish …

  28. Stephen Watson says:

    JayZ says:

    “If nuclear isnt the future, then why are the Chinese planning on spending $120 billion over the next ten years? The Chinese currently have 65,000MWE under construction and are planning on bringing another 80,000MWE online by 2020. Seems to me like they have a different idea on where the future lies.”

    When you are fast becoming the largest user and manufacturer of everything on the planet, your energy needs will be gargantuan. If you realise that oil has or is incredibly close to peaking, that coal energy availability in your country is becoming more expensive and is disappearing fast and you are, like all Western countries, addicted to economic growth to keep the entire consumer expansion bandwagon on the road, then you will do anything to keep it going. Enter nuclear.

    You don’t have to think long term of course, just as we don’t, but it may well seem a good idea to get you out of a hole for 10 years and let the generations yet to come pick up the tab.

  29. Anne van der Bom says:


    First of all, building a nuclear powerplant in China is not the same as building one in the US or Europe.

    The cost of the first four is expected to be less than $2000/kW, with this reducing to $1600 for further units.

    Is that according to the Westinghouse sales brochure?

    lets see some sensible figures if you are trying to discuss nuclear power relative to other forms on non-fossil fuel power.

    Sensible figure?

    More sensible figures?

    Or perhaps Turkey can do it cheaper? Nope.

    That’s what the sensible figures in the real world are. Until the nuclear proponents start talking the truth about the price of nuclear power, they will not get much of my attention.

  30. Anne van der Bom says:


    Take about a year to observe the property for what the sun does, relationship of trees, other environmental features before you figure out how you would best want it to fit within the environment, placement, windows, doors, etc. of house.

    You seem to be a privileged person. I wish I could do that: buy an acre of land and build a house on it. That is not an option for 90% of the first world population. In real life, for the majority of the population a practical solution has to be found to reduce energy consumption.

  31. Joy Hughes says:

    Kind of sucks that we live down wind from China’s hastily built nukes, doesn’t it? Who’d they contract with for the concrete, by the way…

  32. quokka says:

    Anne van der Bom (#29)

    If you wish to make a point about the costs of nuclear power you could at the very least attempt to find an up to date credible source. The terms of the Russia/Turkey agreement are outlined here:

    As you can see, the financing arrangements are quite complex but nothing like the out of date report that you linked to.

    The 2010 IEA estimates of the Levelized Cost of Electricity for nuclear power in a number of countries are given here:

    Notice that the Sth Korean costs are very similar to the reported Chinese costs, so I would be very cautious of dismissing the Chinese costs as Westinghouse marketing talk.

  33. fj3 says:

    30. Anne van der Bom, ” . . a practical solution has to be found to reduce energy consumption.”

    This “privileged person” stuff is silly. The way described (#14 fj3) would save the most money, emissions and energy and likely a much better long-term solution all around. You are proposing a quick fix to build houses as solar energy machines which may not best address local and global environmental issues as well as those people that live in it.

    And, if someone chooses to build one’s own house they can often do it for what it costs as a down payment not only saving a huge amount of money and emissions in the process but the emissions required to fund building or buying the house since most people do not have net-zero sources of income.

    And, there’s lots of other good stuff that goes with building one’s own house including current ideas about the necessity for socio-economic change minimizing current consumerism badly needed to mitigate climate change.

  34. adelady says:

    Nuclear has one huge disadvantage until we move to next, or further, generation reactors. Cooling.

    No matter what, all reactors new and existing will have to operate in a warmer world.

    What happens to France’s reactors (or Tennessee’s or anywhere else’s) when water runs too low, too slow or too hot to use for cooling a reactor?

  35. quokka says:

    adelady #34

    Nuclear power is pretty much the same as any other thermal power plant when it comes to cooling issues. Whether the heat is generated from a nuclear reaction, burning coal or gas or by reflected sunlight in solar thermal, the plant thermal efficiency is determined by the temperature difference between the “top” and the “bottom” of the cycle. This is true whether the turbines are driven by steam, supercritical CO2 or any other fluid.

    Water cooled plants can use once through cooling where the water comes from a river or lake and is discharged back into the source a few degrees warmer. Or they can use recirculation with cooling towers where is portion of the water is lost to evaporation, but the majority is recirculated. Nuclear power stations of both types exist. It is my understanding that issues with French NPPs related to once-through cooling where the temperature of the discharged cooling water was exceeding environmental limits.

    This issue is not unique to nuclear power. It simply means that any thermal power plant needs to be sited with due to attention to cooling requirements in a warming world. Somewhere near the coast is the obvious choice.

    Air cooling is also possible for thermal power plants, though it reduces the thermal efficiency. Higher operating temperature is an advantage and gas and CSP have an advantage over conventional nuclear reactors, but high temperature nuclear reactors are certainly possible. This applies both to water or air cooling.

  36. adelady says:

    quokka, thanks, I more or less knew all of that. In the end, if you burn stuff you have to deal with the heat. My point is simply that we need better ideas and better designs if we’re to do any of this in a warmer world – because any kind of cooling will be more difficult.

    I have a secret hankering for a salt-cooled thorium reactor, but that’s just a wish list item. What matters is what we can instal and operate in the next 5-15 years.

  37. Anne van der Bom says:


    Thanks for the update on the Turkish plant. That doesn’t change the exorbitant costs for the US & Canada plants though. Any updates on that?

    The IEA report you linked to did raise a few eybrows:

    These seem to progress the possibility of a Russian nuclear project at Akkuyu, probably with 25% government equity to dampen the likely electricity price rise.

    So nuclear can;t still stand on its own legs without subsidy.

    of four 1200 MWe AES-2006 units as a US$ 20 billion project

    That is ~$ 4200 per kW. Or more than double the price that bruced mentioned. You know, it is so hard to get any reliable numbers from nuclear proponents.

    TETAS will buy a fixed proportion of the power at a fixed price of US$ 12.35 cents/kWh for 15 years, or to 2030.

    12 cents per kWh is still considerably higher than most other generating options. Within a few years, even PV will be cost-competetive with that.

    As to your second link, that’s a nice table, but what is the source? What year was it made? What are the assumptions? Is this existing plants or new plants? Are the insurance premiums paid-for-by-taxpayers included? Just a table says nothing.

    The point is not existing plants, I don’t care how cheap they are. We’re now talking about the new plants and what they cost us. The general picture is: too much.

    This report is much more thorough, done by a diverse group of organisations from the power industry, environmental movement and academic world. Regarding the levelized cost it came to the following conclusion:

    The NJFF participants reviewed a number of studies that evaluated the life-cycle levelized cost of future nuclear power. We also relied on our own model to analyze the sensitivity of costs to certain factors. We found that a reasonable range for the expected levelized cost of nuclear power is between 8 and 11 cents per kWh delivered to the grid, before transmission and distribution costs

    In general, that is higher than your table. And it is now 3 years old. I’d like to see it updated with the latest price developments. The general picture that emerges is that new nuclear power will cost more than 10 cents per kWh, is highly uncertain (a lot of delays and cost overruns), uninsurable, and slow. I do not see it as an attractive option.

  38. Anne van der Bom says:

    In addition to my previous comment, one of the large uncertainties regarding nuclear plants are decommissioning costs. The table that quokka linked to is a nice example of that. It lists decommissioning cost estimates from 0 to a few cents to $1.77 per MWh. What is the real cost? You can just as well throw a dice. My guess is as good as yours or anyones apparently. I fear that decommissioning costs are kept optimistically low for political and commercial reasons. When the time of decommissioning is there, the salesmen and politicians that once promised us these bargains are all dead or retired and one way or another can’t be held accountable anymore.

    Furthermore the table also ignores spent fuel processing and storage. AFAIK there is no final storage solution in operation anywhere in the world. All spent fuel is ‘temporarily’ stored on-site, awaiting a final storage solution. Since the solution is not there and the costs unknown, they are usually set to 0.

    As an example to illustrate my point: the decommissioning cost of 3 GW of reactors in the UK is estimated to cost £ 73.6 billion, including the fuel processing plants and waste repositories necessary to operate these plants. At current exchange rates that is 114 billion dollar for cleaning up a pathetic 3 GW of generating capacity, or almost $40,000 per kW.

    Decommissioning a modern plant will be considerably cheaper per kW, but still more than the cents per MWh from quokka’s table. To get some guidance on how ridiculously low those estimates are. Take the 13 cents per MWh number stated for the US. Suppose a 1000 MW plant operating for 35 years and 90% average capacity factor. It will have 276,000 full load hours and generate at best 276 million MWh in its lifetime. 276 million x $ 0.13 = $ 35 million. Decommissioning a 1 GW nuclear plant for 35 million?

    If you look at these numbers of actual decommissioning taking place, a cost of $ 1 billion is more realistic. How can I trust any number put out by the nuclear industry?

  39. AlexH555 says:

    Regarding nuclear power costs, the table came from “Projected Costs of Generating Electricity: 2010 Edition”

    Regarding cost, that depends where do you live, you can’t say that nuclear is cheap when you live in USA/coal states. South korea has no fossils fuels, same for Japan or France, that’s not the same thing.

    Beside, nuclear power isn’t suited for small markets (Canada = crap).

    I feel that lacks of heavy manufacturing facilities[2] and labor costs[3] may contribute to a very high price tag about nuclear. US, compared to asia, do not have such capacity, same for Canada and european markets. Ramping this capacity would take a long time, beside we don’t know how the construction will behave in the US, or any other non-asian for that matter.

    Regarding subsidies/insurance, I don’t know, that depends how you calculate the risk, if you consider Chernobyl is cyclic (i.e. happenning every 20 years ~300-600 billion scale damage), it’s about ~6-12$/MWh[1].

    [1] World nuclear power produced ~50 billion MWh since 1987

  40. quokka says:

    Anne van der Bom (#37)

    The table itemizing nuclear power costs by country comes from the IEA 2010 Projected Costs of Electricity Generation report. It is a published correction to the table in the main report which unfortunately is not free to download. The executive summary however is, and the PDF can be downloaded here:

    The IEA cost estimates assume a CO2 price of $30/tonne. There is clearly considerable regional variation. But the LCOE figures for NA and Europe are not wildly different from the NJFF figure of $0.08-$0.11 per kWh. Overall the IEA assesses nuclear to be at least cost competitive and in Asia substantially cheaper than other options.

    A recent review of the literature published in the journal Energy finds nuclear to be the lowest cost, lowest emission base load technology: . You can email Prof Brook for a copy of the full paper for free.

    The mooted cost of $4,200/kWh for Akkuyu seems to be somewhere near the right ballpark. The cost for the UAE facility to be built by Korea is just under $4K/kWh. Thats for first of a kind and at a mostly fixed price in a nation with no existing nuclear infrastructure at all.

    My view is that costs in NA will continue to be uncertain without decent government policy and improvements in the regulatory structure. What is happening in Asia is a lot more interesting and ultimately critically important as that is where energy demand will be highest. It is also as Hansen has recently observed the region where the huge engineering capacity to deal with the climate problem is most likely to be developed. China has recently upped it’s 2020 nuclear goal to 112 GWe. China has also announced the investment of $175 billion in a “nuclear city”:

    FWIW my view is that we will have a better handle on the cost of Gen III+ pressurized water reactors when China starts exporting – maybe from 2014 onwards. It seems the most likely export will be a design based on the Westinghouse AP1000 for which China has acquired the rights. They will probably eat Areva’s lunch.

    Of course all of this is far too little and far too slow, but renewables are no better on that count and it remains unclear whether renewables (other than hydro) can displace coal in baseload generation.

  41. quokka says:

    This recent report Nuclear Lessons Learned from the UK Royal Academy of Engineering and associated professional bodies provides some very valuable insight into the current construction of nuclear power plants including the good, the bad and the ugly. It is important to understand that in nuclear as in all large engineering projects lessons are learned.

    Case studies include Sizewell B, the EPRs in France, Finland and China and the AP1000s in China.

  42. David B. Benson says:

    The main post is highly disappointing, but some of the comments have been on the mark. I point out to all that
    has many well done threads regarding nuclear power and comparisons to other generating methods.

    The Northwest Power and Conservation Council recently completed its sixth power plan, guidance for BPA and the 137+ utilites BPA sells power to. In that study, efficiency was by far the least expensive option and is being pushed by all utilites in the region. After that there is the boutique geothermal and then, in order of increasing cost,
    (1) combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs),
    (2) Columbia basin wind,
    (3) nuclear power plants,
    (4) coal burners,
    (5) wind from far away, Montana & Alberta.
    the differences in cost of the first four are quite small.

    This being the Pacific Northwest, utilty scale solar is not an option and BPA will only backup wind, via its massive hydro, up to 20% of the region’s installed capacity. After that, wind will have to be backed by CCGTs and one of the utlity companies (which has most of the installed wind in its region) has already completed at least one CCGT for exactly that purpose.

    I conclude that to replace the 4–5 coal burners here in the PNW (this includes the 2 massive Colstrip, MT, coal burners) seriously considering some nuclear power plants (NPPs) may be a cost effective option. [We only have one NPP in the PWN, at Hanford.] My cost study, such as it is, concludes that to replace the existing coal burners with NPPs will cause that source of power to go up by around US$0.035–0.04 per kilowatt-hour. This suggests that charging coal burners a FCOAD fee of more than that would induce the utilities and the regulatory agencies to seriously consider turning off the coal burners. At a larger FCOAD fee, NPPs are defintiely favored over CCGTs for nightload (sometimes called baseload) power but not for load following.

  43. Kaj Luukko says:

    “I have hated nuclear power for 40 years but now more than ever. Given the need to successfully address the specter of climate change, we are wasting precious time, money and expertise pursuing new nuclear.”

    This is a pure opinion. Hansen already went beyond it.