Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve?

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"Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve?"

‘Forgetting by doing’? Real escalation in reactor investment costs

Drawing on largely unknown public records, the paper reveals for the first time both absolute as well as yearly and specific reactor costs and their evolution over time. Its most significant finding is that even this most successful nuclear scale-up was characterized by a substantial escalation of real-term construction costs.

Fig. 13.  Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed

We’ve known for a while that the cost of new nuclear power plants in this county have been soaring (see Nuclear power: The price is not right and Exclusive analysis: The staggering cost of new nuclear power).

Before 2007, price estimates of $4000/kw for new U.S. nukes were common, but by October 2007 Moody’s Investors Service report, “New Nuclear Generation in the United States,” concluded, “Moody’s believes the all-in cost of a nuclear generating facility could come in at between $5,000 – $6,000/kw.”  That same month, Florida Power and Light, “a leader in nuclear power generation,” presented its detailed cost estimate for new nukes to the Florida Public Service Commission. It concluded that two units totaling 2,200 megawatts would cost from $5,500 to $8,100 per kilowatt “” $12 billion to $18 billion total!  In 2008, Progress Energy informed state regulators that the twin 1,100-megawatt plants it intended to build in Florida would cost $14 billion, which “triples estimates the utility offered little more than a year ago.” That would be more than $6,400 a kilowatt.  (And that didn’t even count the 200-mile $3 billion transmission system utility needs, which would bring the price up to a staggering $7,700 a kilowatt).

Historical data cost on the French nukes have not been as well publicized.  But Arnulf Grubler of the International Institute for Applied Systems in Austria, using “largely unknown public records” was able to perform an analysis of French (and U.S.) nuclear plants for Energy Policy, “The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing” (subs. req’d).

Before discussing that paper, it is worth noting that renewable energy technologies have classic learning curves.  Here is solar:

Wind power looks similar.

While Grubler’s Energy Policy paper is behind a firewall, his original IIAS interim report, “An assessment of the costs of the French nuclear PWR program, 1979-2000″ is online here.

Grubler explains the reasons for the overall ‘success’ of the French program, at least in terms of scale:

The ambitious French PWR expansion program is legitimately considered the most successful scaling-up of a complex, largescale technology in the recent history of industrialized countries. This paper has argued that above all, the reasons for this success lay in a unique institutional setting allowing centralized decisionmaking, regulatory stability, dedicated efforts for standardized reactor designs (which could long profit from knowledge spillovers via the Westinghouse license), and a powerful nationalized utility, E´ DF, whose substantial in-house engineering resources enabled it to act as principal and agent of reactor construction simultaneously.

He then explores the implications of the cost escalation, the “negative learning”:

Despite a most favorable setting, the French PWR program exhibited substantial real cost escalation…

… despite more moderate cost escalation [than the U.S.], the French experience nonetheless raises a number of fundamental issues worth considering in a climate-constrained world

First, while the nuclear industry is often quick to point at public opposition and regulatory uncertainty as reasons for real cost escalation, it may be more productive to start asking whether these trends are not intrinsic to the very nature of the technology itself: large-scale, lumpy, and requiring a formidable ability to manage complexity in both construction and operation. These intrinsic characteristics of the technology limit essentially all classical mechanisms of cost improvements””standardization, large series, and a large number of quasi-identical experiences that can lead to technological learning and ultimate cost reductions””except one: increases in unit size, i.e., economies of scale. In the history of steam electricity generation, these indeed led initially to substantial cost reductions, but after the late 1960s that option has failed invariably due to continued design changes (leading to higher material requirements per kW – the current EPR design being the most ”heavy”) and also increases in technological complexity.

As Richard Caperton and I wrote for CNN:  New reactors are intrinsically expensive because they must be able to withstand virtually any risk that we can imagine, including human error and major disasters. Why? Because when the potential result of a disaster is the poisoning “” and ultimately, death “” of thousands of people, even the most remote threats must be eliminated.

Lastly, the French nuclear case has also demonstrated the limits of the learning paradigm: the assumption that costs invariably decrease with accumulated technology deployment. The French example serves as a useful reminder of the limits of the generalizability of simplistic learning/experience curve models. Not only do nuclear reactors across all countries with significant programs invariably exhibit negative learning, i.e., cost increase rather than decline, but the pattern is also quite variable, defying approximations by simple learning-curve models, as shown in Fig. 13 [reprinted above].

Why did the costs escalate?  Why was there “negative learning.”  He offers this theory:

… with increasing application (“doing”), the complexity of the technology inevitably increases leading to inherent cost escalation trends that limit or reverse “learning” (cost reduction) possibilities. In other words, technology scale-up can lead to an inevitable increase in systems complexity (in the case of nuclear, full fuel cycle management, load-following operation mode, and increasing safety standards as operation experience [and unanticipated problems] are accumulating) that translates into real-cost escalation, or “negative learning” in the terminology of learning/ experience curve models. The result may be a much wider cost variation across different technologies than so far anticipated.

That seems unlikely to change any time soon given recent events in Japan (see The Nukes of Hazard:  Reports of nuclear Renaissance were greatly exaggerated; efficiency is 10 times cheaper today, renewables “costs are dropping fast”).

In fact, the cost of new nuclear power plant have continued to escalate in the United States, France, and other countries since 2000:

Indeed the Toronto Star “” published these stunning details in Canada’s largest daily newspaper about Areva’s Ontario bid:

AECL’s $26 billion bid was based on the construction of two 1,200-megawatt Advanced Candu Reactors, working out to $10,800 per kilowatt of power capacity….

The bid from France’s Areva NP also blew past expectations, sources said. Areva’s bid came in at $23.6 billion, with two 1,600-megawatt reactors costing $7.8 billion and the rest of the plant costing $15.8 billion. It works out to $7,375 per kilowatt, and was based on a similar cost estimate Areva had submitted for a plant proposed in Maryland”¦.

Stevens said Areva’s lower price makes sense because the French company wasn’t prepared to take on as much risk as the government had hoped. This made Areva’s bid non-compliant in the end. Crown-owned AECL, however, complied with Ontario’s risk-sharing requirement but was instructed by the federal government to price this risk into its bid. “Which is why it came out so high,” said Stevens.

Hamilton explained on his blog, Areva “was deemed non-compliant, however, likely because Areva wouldn’t guarantee the price.”

Yes, you can buy a terrific low-cost $8* billion nuke from Areva [* the fine print says that if the cost escalates, you swallow the risk, not Areva -- a painful lesson Areva learned in Finland (see "Nuclear meltdown in Finland")].

So the negative learning curve continued with Areva’s 2009 bid — $7,375 per kilowatt (your price may vary, upwards, that is).  Apparently Areva did learn that it wasn’t charging enough for its reactors, which are now nearly off the chart in Gubler’s analysis (whose left-hand y-axis goes up to $7500/kw in US$2004):

Nuclear unlearning2

New nukes have gone from too cheap to meter to too expensive to matter for the foreseeable future.

The ambitious French PWR expansion program is legitimately
considered the most successful scaling-up of a complex, largescale
technology in the recent history of industrialized countries.
This paper has argued that above all, the reasons for this success
lay in a unique institutional setting allowing centralized decisionmaking,
regulatory stability, dedicated efforts for standardized
reactor designs (which could long profit from knowledge spillovers
via the Westinghouse license), and a powerful nationalized
utility, E´ DF, whose substantial in-house engineering resources
enabled it to act as principal and agent of reactor construction
simultaneously.
« »

45 Responses to Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve?

  1. Jay Alt says:

    In France standardized designs drove down component costs. But the US is repeating our previous mistake, DOE wants to qualify 5 different new reactor designs. This might lead cynics to wonder if the goal is to pad the manufacturer’s bottom line rather than bringing the least costly nuclear power to the market.

  2. CP readers should know that Arnulf made some methodological changes when preparing the article for publication in Energy Policy, so there are some differences between the IIASA working paper and the final article in the journal.

    If anyone is interested in the Koomey and Hultman 2007 article for US costs (referenced above), please email me for a copy.

    Koomey, Jonathan G., and Nathan E. Hultman. 2007. “A reactor-level analysis of busbar costs for U.S. nuclear plants, 1970-2005.” Energy Policy. vol. 35, no. 11. November. pp. 5630-5642. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2007.06.005 (Subscription required)

  3. Alan Nogee says:

    Economist Marc Cooper came to very similar conclusion in a paper published last year: POLICY CHALLENGES OF NUCLEAR REACTOR CONSTRUCTION,
    COST ESCALATION AND CROWDING OUT ALTERNATIVES: LESSONS FROM THE U.S. AND FRANCE FOR THE EFFORT TO REVIVE THE U.S. INDUSTRY WITH LOAN GUARANTEES AND TAX SUBSIDIES http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Documents/IEE/20100909_cooperStudy.pdf

    Ironically, the one situation for which Cooper found positive learning was when multiple plants were built on the same site, a configuration now called into question by the Fukushima accident.

    @alannogee

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Nuclear has been noncompetitive for a few years now. If government meltdown insurance, fissile material dangers, and disposal costs are added, nuclear is nonsensical, which is why they need so many public touts and behind the scenes lobbyists.

    The banks are the main ones behind nuclear, since a 10 year timeline means easy money, due to the huge amounts ($6 billion plus) and government guarantees. The second group behind nuclear is the fossil fuel industry, since they know perfectly well that nuclear is a failed technology, whose future can only get worse.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Great article Joe, really lays it out as to why nuclear has nowhere to go. $10+k per Kilowatt, those prices are just stunning in relation to pretty much anything else, even solar PV’s (much more expensive than wind) are significantly less than 1/2 that price per KW.

    Mike Roddy you said it perfectly “If government meltdown insurance, fissile material dangers, and disposal costs are added, nuclear is nonsensical”

    All that said, it would be nice if there was some low / no carbon power generation tech that the overall GOP wouldn’t oppose on sight (hard to move forward with them in the way controlling the House) and natural gas being the “clean” fuel (not) they can approve of.

  6. Ken says:

    Speaking of hidden costs, socalled externalities, I’ve been darkly amused recently by the sadly desperate line added to every article regarding the Japan meltdown – “Not threatening to Human Health.” Among the hundreds available, I’ve been collecting a few; thought I would share:
    “The plutonium – used in the fuel mix in the No 3 reactor – is not at levels that threaten human health, officials said.” BBC News – Japan to scrap stricken nuclear reactors 30 March 2011

    “The Japanese Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, said: “Even if these foods are temporarily eaten, there is no health hazard.” BBC News – Tokyo water ‘unfit for babies’ due to high radiation 23 March 2011

    “Three plutonium isotopes — Pu-238, -239 and -240 — were found in soil at five different points inside the plant grounds, Tokyo Electric reported. The element can be a serious health hazard if inhaled or ingested, but external exposure poses little health risk, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” Damaged reactor may be leaking radioactive water, Japan says – CNN.com By the CNN Wire Staff March 28, 2011

    “Mr. Edano also noted that radiation above the acceptable limit had been found in beef from Fukushima prefecture, and he said the government was repeating the tests to confirm them. In any case, he said, “the radiation is not of a level sufficient to be harmful to human health if someone eats it once or twice.”” Radiation Levels Rise Again at Nuclear Plant – NYTimes.com

    “Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda maintained that contamination of the sea to be caused by the disposal will pose no major health risk, while apologizing for raising concerns among the public, especially fishermen.” Removal of 60,000 tons of radioactive water eyed at Fukushima plant – The Mainichi Daily News

  7. Solar Jim says:

    One might say atomic fission is an economic atomic bomb, which enables real atomic bombs. All of which is state subsidized and indemnified from numerous liabilities of public harm.

    On the other hand, nuclear power from the sun, as indicated by the graph above, is headed for “too cheap to meter.” Especially if you remove yourself or your business from the metered grid.

    Meter this: permanent poisonous materials and financial debt that are too unfathomable for accounting. And the Middle East is planning on going atomic. That should be reassuringly stabilizing and sustainable, in a land that burns with the sun’s nuclear radiation.

    Clean, safe nuclear is one of the great oxymorons in the Atomic Age. Yet, it seems true for the sun’s fusion radiation. Have a solar day, and attempt to stay out of the way of unfolding disasters from the fuels of war (uranium and petrochemical contamination, blowouts, explosions and climate destabilization).

  8. Virveli says:

    Joe,
    FYI, Olkiluoto NPR plant 3 in Finland still is a turn-key system. That means the losses will fall on the contractor Areva NP, who have had to absorb a loss of 370 million EUR last year for the project for 2010. Although the project might take a bit longer, I’m happier with an outcome that carries a reliable new-generation plant with it.

    Moreover, Olkiluoto 4 is in the pipeline, see: http://www.tvo.fi/www/page/ol4_en/

    Solar and wind is nice, but we’re an Alaska (without their oil and gas)!

  9. Larry Gilman says:

    If it were possible to generate electricity from proclamations that low-cost, ultra-reliable nuclear power is just around the corner, we would indeed have been enjoying an energy source too cheap to meter for the last half-century.

  10. phil says:

    I am considering posting bioterror blueprints on all blogs until I’m banned. I had a hookup in the who I thought was cool, but wound up with two solidified chunks of god knows what after dried. Now I’m SOL my existing new connect. The allocation of the scarce resources in the future will be based on mind states beyond $10000/yr PPP (for which market forces appear very good). I hate myself so much now. CPC is taking us to a dead end where people get fat and live to 70s and die. And civilization might not survive AGW let alone future $quadrillions/yr market failures. Harper has put dealers in a position of power over me and I am seriously considering retaliating. There might be a manchurian candidate implant or drug that destabilizes Earth analogous to facebook spread of unrest now. There will be a need for a RW brake on that but Harper and GOP are arresting potheads and hard drugs users now without even considering effects of psychotropic fiending (smaokes), being high, non psychotropic fiending (coffee)…leaving us totally defenseless against the future. We could limit the number of people high on 22nd crack at any given time. Charge more beyond 1st two beers. Force free will with weekly or monthly sobriety discounts/legislation. I really wish I could get my serotonin or dopamine or whatever from families and a healthy relationship, but that hasn’t been my life to date. AB is +$35B and minus $21B in revenue payments a yr. What is that adjusted for inflation historically? What will that be a carbon free future? What are the costs of following down the neocon road that has led USA to a deadend? Beyond the first $10000, sprawl is a useless arms race. In AB, a cool coworker mentioned how clean Cgy is noticing my 7-straight FT shift beard. A fat guy with a hotchick on the bus noted I could make $50000-$60000 telemarketing (hope he doesn’t have diabetes or stroke). People made fun of a mentally ill guy who did the hardest job (picking on chimney fluff). Is fine but should’ve been making $10/hr, not $16+/hr. They used their pay to reinforce ego.
    I can’t buy coffee with a woman who doesn’t want me. Can’t buy peace of mind. That comes from good nuclear family or good Crowns.

  11. catman306 says:

    What a timely post that will give the anti-nuke people in Atlanta some heavy ammunition. Thanks, Joe! We don’t need no stinkin’ nuke power plants, built on a historical earthquake fault, if you catch my continental drift.
    (We could all stop paying the extra $10 per month on our electric bills until Southern Corp./ Georgia Power backs off.)

    PSC postpones decision on Vogtle risk-sharing

    ATLANTA — Georgia Power customers will have to wait to see if they’ll be sharing the risk of construction costs overruns with the company’s investors for two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta after the Public Service Commission postponed its decision Tuesday.

    http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/040611/new_810962909.shtml

  12. Joan Savage says:

    Ironically..

    On dot earth today, Andrew Revkin gave space to a what I’d call social relativism on judging the risks of nuclear power and climate change. He draws on the Cultural Cognition Project (Yale), which has written in an abstract, “The ‘cultural cognition of risk’ refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values.”

    Revkin quoted Monbiot’s pro-nuclear position without reflecting on what cultural cognition of risk and values are showing up there. Perhaps he left that to his readers. Monbiot’s position seemed largely focused on discrediting statements about Chernobyl, without proving a positive case in favor of nuclear in the whole.

    I have to say that the “cognition of risk” and underlying values are fairly explicit here at climateprogress, and I appreciate the transparency and the rigor of logic, as well as the facts provided.

  13. David Smith says:

    This issue with the negative learning really suggests that they moved to production way before they should have because complete knowledge is still obviously lacking. It’s as if Henry ford had started selling cars without breaks and then when his products started crashing into each other responding, “Oh, I didn’t know that would happen. You want me to add breaks? That’s going to raise the price, how was I to know…”. As a designer, myself, it seems that they should still be testing these technologies in the lab and not on us at scale. A sign that the technology is ready for deployment would be when the learning curve yeilds the results that you might normally expect and prices go down.

  14. bratisla says:

    Many thanks Joe. You know what is the “best” in this story ? What highlights most the problem French are facing with nuclear industry ?

    This article got ZERO mention in any french mainstream media. None. Seriously, I just checked once again, and nothing. Instead, we have lots of “anonymous commentators” parroting that nuclear is cheap and we cannot go out and renewable are unreliable.
    Politics (except Greens) only *begin* to consider that not relying only on nuclear power *may* not be a good idea, and *maybe* we could consider a bit more renewable. Some, like the buffoon Allegre, even thought “indecent” to talk about that.
    And the only investigation newspaper (le Canard Enchaine) discovered that the nuclear technocrats even decided to lower the seismicity estimates given by experts, in order to build cheaper. Build cheaper !

    Nuclear lobby is that strong in France, this is unbelievable. Please Joe, if you have contacts in France, send this article as abroad as possible. Debate about nuclear power is mandatory in France, and we need facts like that.

  15. Chris Winter says:

    It would be interesting to compare this data with costs over the years for the reactors used by the “nuclear navy” — in submarines beginning with Nautilus and later in aircraft carriers. Of course, I doubt that data would be easy to find.

  16. Brian N says:

    The cost reduction graph for PV is the name plate price per watt generated under constant high insolation not the actual location’s insolation dependant production averaged over a year.

    I just served on my towns recent solar PV review committee for a power purchase agreement. The PPA bidder will likely build a 2.5GW (nameplate Watts) farm that would offset our ave load requirement of 340kW.
    We will buy the PV electricity for much less than our current 16c/kWh so we don’t care how the PPA provider finances the systems or about RECs.
    It will be on a landfill site so land use & maintenance costs costs will be minimal.
    We interviewed 5 bidders and they of course mentioned equipment declining cost from $5/W down to $4/W over the last ten years. Then they explained you multiply nameplate by the capacity factor # of 1200 (applicable to central Mass) to get the yearly kWh production.
    When you divide that production by 8,760 hrs in a year, you get the ave hourly production of 340kW.

    So for our PPA provider the actual system cost becomes $4.5*8760/1200 i.e. $32.85/watt. If the system were in the south west, the CF would be about double so average production cost would be about $16/W.

    As for embodied energy, in our location the energy payback time is 3yrs so our PV will payback its embodied energy 8x in 24 years. In the S.W that payback would be double.

    In an announcement some months ago for the large London offshore wind farm, the costs worked out to be about $15/W though I don’t recall the link.

    I’m OK with renewable energy costing $15/W so bombshells like $10.8/W don’t seem such bombshells.

  17. The big question polled at SciGuy:

    The Big Question: As Fukushima continues to leak, is U.S. nuclear energy cooked?

    “As the Fukushima nuclear accident continues to unfold — and the situation remains very serious — I’ve been reconsidering my thoughts about the disaster’s effects on the nuclear industry.”

    ~IANVS

  18. Tom Gray says:

    I blogged on costs of wind recently: http://www.awea.org/blog/index.cfm?customel_dataPageID_1699=7157 – Tom Gray, Wind Energy Consultant

  19. David Smith, #13: We never have complete knowledge about the future. Learning curves describe cost reductions from actually implementing the technology in the field. Lab tests don’t help you–the only way to know what a technology will cost when implemented with precision is to actually build it. This is especially true of site built technologies and those that only come in large sizes. It’s less true for mass-manufactured technologies, like wind turbines or PVs. But your larger point is well taken…

  20. Mark says:

    A good followup to this post would be a discussion of the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) per kWh from new nuclear plants, comparing that cost to natural gas, coal, wind and solar.

    Many people seem to assume that nuclear plants runs continuously 24×365. When you look at annual production from the 6 Fukushima reactors over the past 40 years, you see huge variations in electricity production in GWh on an annual basis, with the standard deviation ranging from 25% to 50% of the average annual production.

    That means that variations of 1 to 1.5 GWh per year in electricity production from the Fukushima reactors on an annual basis are quite typical. Google Fukushima electricity production to find the data.

    When I look at solar electricity production on an annual basis here in Massachusetts I see standard deviations on an annual basis of about 10%. You can get this data from the Massachusetts Production Tracking System.

    One could make the case that solar is quite a bit more predictable at producing electricity on an annual basis than nuclear.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We now await George Monbiot to announce that nuclear is not only safe, and that the UN says so (what a relief!) but it is also staggeringly cheap, despite what the disinformationists say. I worry fro George. His apostasy, particularly his continuing denial that non-carbon, non-nuclear, power options exist or are within reach, is really troubling. If he could sell-out, who’s safe (in other words-where’s my cheque?)Yes, I know it would be a little one, but every bit helps. In fact, has the Kochtopus ever considered putting all humanity on the pay-roll?

  22. Bill W says:

    Jay Alt at #1 wrote: “In France standardized designs drove down component costs. But the US is repeating our previous mistake, DOE wants to qualify 5 different new reactor designs. This might lead cynics to wonder if the goal is to pad the manufacturer’s bottom line rather than bringing the least costly nuclear power to the market.”

    We can’t use a single standardized design here, because that would favor a single manufacturer, and that would be….. socialist. You know, like France.

  23. Mike Roddy says:

    Mulga, Monbiot is a special case. I don’t think he sold out as much as became a contrarian attention getter. Before his nonsensical pro nuke tirades (“Fukushima has now persuaded me that nuclear is the way to go”) there was his “Climategate” rant.

    The man is worse than useless, and it’s a shame, because George certainly had his moments. We could guess what his problem is- cognitive decline? strange emotional feedbacks? – but the point is, goodbye, George. Go tell your strange stories and inner dramas to Murdoch and friends.

  24. David B. Benson says:

    The cost of all forms of heavy construction show a similar secular tread. For example, on the page
    http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/biz/construction/constructioncosts.cfm
    one finds a Highway Construction Cost: Cost Index Graph (pdf 21 kb) Updated 1/11/2011 which illustrates the same upward trend as for new nuclear power plants.

  25. Virveli says:

    Mark: “Many people seem to assume that nuclear plants runs continuously 24×365.”

    Most types of plants will need to be shut down for reloading of fuel and maintenance. The best run plants, such as those in Finland, have a capacity factor of well over 90% year in, year out. The latest data shows 91% (older Russian reactors from the 1970s) – 94,5%/97,5% (Olkiluoto 1&2) so we’re getting pretty close here.

    http://www.tvo.fi/www/page/2672/
    http://www.fortum.com/news_section_item.asp?path=14022;14024;14026;25730;551;55150

    As David B. Benson said, there’s un upward cost curve for all construction. I’d like to see the same curve for say casinos and hotels in the U.S. A Fukushima Mark I reactor might be cheap to build, but the containment structures and other safety features would not meet the standards of today. I wonder why this enhanced security is used *against* nuclear power?

  26. bill says:

    Virveli ‘wonders why this enhanced security is used *against* nuclear power’! Um, because it costs an absolute fotune – risks to be borne by the taxpayer- and takes forever to get online. And Fukuskima shows what cheaper/quicker/lower standards would mean.

    In short, it’s a technology so baroque that it’s unworkable.

    An mulga m – yep, George seems to have suffered a meltdown himself. After picking the week after the tsunami hit Fukushima to pronounce Nuclear Power to be ‘safe’ – because his psychic powers mean he knows the final outcome there in advance, no doubt – he completely flipped after this debate with Helen Caldicott on Democracy Now. Now he’s announced that the Anti-Nuclear lobby has been systematically deluding us all for decades! Now, I also think Caldicott did very badly – she’s always seemed too tightly wound to me – but she’s not really the person he should be debating. (How about you, Joe?)

    There’s also an increasingly-evident and worrying phenomenon I’m inclined to think of as Chernobyl Denial…

  27. llewelly says:

    As Richard Caperton and I wrote for CNN: New reactors are intrinsically expensive because they must be able to withstand virtually any risk that we can imagine, including human error and major disasters. Why? Because when the potential result of a disaster is the poisoning — and ultimately, death — of thousands of people, even the most remote threats must be eliminated.

    While this is true, we have so far chosen coal over nuclear, and in the case of coal, “the poisoning — and ultimately, death — of thousands of people” is not the result of disaster, but the result of normal operation.
    Now I realize that in this post you are comparing nuclear to greater efficiency, solar and wind, which I hope will constitute the majority of future power sources. But despite clear technological ability to deploy these power sources, the majority of power plants under construction are still coal.

  28. paulm says:

    U.S. Nuclear Regulators Privately Doubted Power Plants Despite Expressing Public Confidence, Documents Show
    http://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=206798696015504&id=139434822741700

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mike #23, good God! I’d forgotten Monbiot’s lamentable performance over Climategate. When every hand was required to man the pumps, he was preening and parading his fine moral sensibilities. It’s beginning to look a bit like the Christopher Hitchens scenario, where, little by little, the various falls from grace added up, before he made the leap across Lethe to the Land of Everlasting Forgetfulness. I do think that he suffers from an hypertrophied sense of his own infallibility, but, hey, who doesn’t?

  30. question says:

    Brian N. #16, I think you mean 2.5MW, not GW… :-)

    Good to hear about your town’s PV commitment! I’m also happy with paying $15, or even $40/W capacity.. Energy is insanely inexpensive these days and not really that much of the imbedded price of things. Even a large increase is not going to derail the economy. Make for some bumps, sure, but it is workable. Considering the hidden costs with other power sources renewables make sense at practically any cost!

  31. Virveli says:

    “Virveli ‘wonders why this enhanced security is used *against* nuclear power’! Um, because it costs an absolute fotune – risks to be borne by the taxpayer- and takes forever to get online. ”

    Bill, I think we’ll agree safety will cost more to implement. It’s hard to please some folks – be nuclear built expensive or cheap it will always be done the wrong way!

    Incidentally, there are no tax reliefs for nuclear power in Finland, the subsidies are for wind power. Even the final disposal is being funded for by the customers in their utility bill.

    “There’s also an increasingly-evident and worrying phenomenon I’m inclined to think of as Chernobyl Denial…”

    Bill, I happen to live in one of the most Chernobil-contaminated areas in Europe outside the near range fallout. What should I be denying? In any case the radiation-induced deaths in my area statistically would stem from the radioactive gas Radon, which the local Nordic geology spews out at world top-5 rate. There is estimated to occur 300 extra cases of lung cancers per year in the country due to it. If you’re an epidemiologist you’re welcome to try and tell the various causes apart!

    The real enemy is spelled C-O-A-L.

  32. ToddInNorway says:

    Brain N@16, that PV project you describe sounds incredible, at 2.5 GigaWatts! But please do not confuse avg. output with real-time output. The plant will produce 2.5 GW at full-sun midday conditions, and 0 at night, and something in between during the rest of the day. The point is that if you can move electricity usage to mid-day, then hopefully that same electric load will not be needed at night.
    Examples:
    Dishwasher
    Clothes washing machine
    Electric hot water heater (properly insulated, the water stays hot for the evening and night)
    Water purification/desalinization
    Super-efficient freezer that can be “super cooled”, allowing warm-up the rest of the day
    Production of ice for use in air conditioning later in the day (this system is already being rolled out-it is a form of energy storage which works fantastic for climates with lots of PV and air conditioning).

  33. Aaron says:

    This piece of investigative journalism seems relevant to the discussion.

    “Tokyo Electric to Build US Nuclear Plants”

    http://www.gregpalast.com/no-bs-info-on-japan-nuclearobama-invites-tokyo-electric-to-build-us-nukes-with-taxpayer-funds/

  34. Mike Roddy says:

    Mulga, I was just thinking about Monbiot as Hitchens redux- and you can add climate denier Alex Cockburn to the list, too.

    Something strange happens to British intellectuals when they get a little older. D.H. Lawrence, for example, became a bizarre racist. All of that caning and emotional abuse suffered in Public School seems to come back to haunt them in late middle age, as their thoughts become little more than angry spittle.

  35. Brian says:

    Thanks @question #30 for spotting that typo. I must proof read the preview better.
    2.5GW would have made it the worlds largest plant by a long shot!

    @ToddInNorway #33
    I know all that as I’m a retired micro electronics design eng’r. Alas no matter how many times I explained the peak/nameplate W v yearly ave W to my energy committee colleagues, town management and the public (mostly with no PV experience) they simply stuck with the vendor’s nameplate power as their basis of understanding. Sometimes its easier to play dumb and ask the ask the bidders to explain it, yet still people are misunderstanding the #s.
    As for time shifting of peoples loads, and advocating reduced electricity use especially for heat & cooling appliances, I totally agree but 99% people I speak too are totally averse to this. Maybe my British accent rubs them the wrong way.

  36. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent analysis on the subject.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  37. Mark says:

    UCS has an interesting and very comprehensive paper written in Feb 2011 cataloging all the subsidies that nuclear power receives and calculating their value in a number of ways including $ per kWh.

    They find that in many instances the subsidies have been and will continue to be larger than the average cost of wholesale electricity.

    The full report is here – http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear_subsidies_report.pdf
    The web page describing the report is here – http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_and_global_warming/nuclear-power-subsidies-report.html

  38. David B. Benson says:

    The spring 2011 issue of UCS Catalyst has a graph showing the increased cost of “powser plant construction in general” which again illustrates that all heavy construction costs have risen over the past decade; nuclear is not especially bad in this regard.

  39. bill says:

    virveli @32

    Um – your point is my point. ‘Be nuclear built expensive or cheap it will always be done the wrong way!’ If we are to have nukes they have to be safe. But if they’re ‘safe’ (this in itself is one of those interesting temporal-loop phenomena where while they always are at the time of commission, if in fact they turn out not to be that’s fine, because they are now) they’re non-competitive. Rather the point of the post we’re discussing, I would have thought.

    And I wasn’t thinking of you at all with regard to what might be called Chernobyl Denial. I apologise if it seemed that way.

    But there seems to be a remarkable effort in some pro-nuke quarters to downplay the scale of the disaster and bolster what I can only see as absurdly low estimates of its impact. This is troubling.

    I agree coal is an enemy (close to ‘the’, but not quite!). But my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend.

    Mike Roddy: ironically, it was following up on Monbiot’s dogged pursuit of Cockburn – a man I had hitherto admired greatly – to provide his No AGW ‘evidence’ that really dragged me into the nuts and bolts of the AGW debate. I went to every link and resource that Cockburn finally (reluctantly) provided, and to describe the assembled ‘case’ as ‘underwhelming’ barely gets half-way there! A link to the La Rouchies, fer chrissakes! I subsequently failed to renew my subscription to CounterPunch – though I still thinks it’s a resource with some great writing. But I have never felt the same about the mans pronouncements since…

  40. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    bill #40, Cockburn was always quite lame-brained over anthropogenic climate destabilisation. A real shame, as it puts all his other, to my mind, admirable, positions, somewhat in doubt. But Monbiot’s behaviour may or may not be apostasy, ie joining the other camp after years of good work. Of course, he may be correct, but I very, very, much doubt it, and if it proves to be so, then I, for one, have taken leave of my senses.

  41. JS says:

    “Incidentally, there are no tax reliefs for nuclear power in Finland, the subsidies are for wind power. Even the final disposal is being funded for by the customers in their utility bill.”

    The states provide backing for the insurance costs (and loans in some cases), so ultimately the tax payers will be burdened and the companies are relieved.

  42. Virveli says:

    “But if they’re ’safe’ (…) they’re non-competitive.”

    Considering the first one in Finland started production in 1977, a big one is now about to be completed, with more reactors in the pipeline, some folks must be really severely disconnected with reality in relation to profitability. A bad business would have closed. As I said, final disposal will have been funded for already during the plant’s operation.

    “But there seems to be a remarkable effort in some pro-nuke quarters to downplay the scale of the disaster and bolster what I can only see as absurdly low estimates of its impact.”

    Bill, so in your opinion, if one accepts the official WHO data on statistical Chernobyl casualties, one is doing what? Down or up-playing, or just about level?

    JS: “The states provide backing for the insurance costs (and loans in some cases), so ultimately the tax payers will be burdened and the companies are relieved.”

    JS, none of those points apply in this country at least. Sorry.

  43. bill says:

    Virveli – which WHO figure are we referring to? 4000, 9000, or ‘about 50′? (‘Political communication tool’ indeed! The NS original article is behind their paywall.)

    (This last, ludicrous, ‘direct’ figure reminds me of the annoying tendency of some commentary on the Iraq War to ‘conveniently’ cling to the early Iraq Body-Count figure – which was then based solely on deaths confirmed by media reporting only – as being the sum of all casualties of the conflict even though the methodological limitations of the count were prominently laid bare for all to see.)

    The best study of these matters I have seen to date is Cardis and Howe 2006. Worth reading carefully. Then there’s the whole issue of the disruption of lives via forced evacuation, permanent no-go zones, food contamination, high levels of anxiety, etc. …

  44. Virveli says:

    “Political communication tool’ indeed!”

    Bill, so it’s a Worldwide Conspiracy? Sounds like the readers of good ole Tony Watts but only sung in mirror image.

    Cardis and Howe 2006.

    I should think “Cardis et al”, 2006. I quote from the first page: “Apart from the large increase in thyroid cancer incidence in young people, there are at present no clearly demonstrated radiation-related increases in cancer risk.”

    “permanent no-go zones, food contamination, high levels of anxiety, etc. …”

    At least the no-go zones seem to serve as wonderful refuges for thriving wildlife. As for anxiety and worries, I tend to think the very point of the discussion on Chernobyl here IS to create anxiety in the general public so they would outvote nuclear power. So political communication tool indeed.