The controversial US energy panel at COP23 was over, and people began pouring out of the room at the climate conference in Bonn. While most panelists left, nuclear engineer Lenka Kollar from NuScale stayed and gave interviews to several camera crews. I was impressed by how she continued to answer countless of questions in a calm and friendly fashion. One of the interviews was with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, but so far I haven’t seen any published material relating to their interviews of Lenka or Eric* from Generation Atomic.
The segregated economics of low-carbon energy
Meanwhile, Lenka continued kindly answring questions. There was one German interviewer, in particular, who grilled her on the exact price per kWh on her suggested type of nuclear power. Even after Lenka gave him the numbers for the US, he kept demanding to hear the price in other countries. Lenka politely noted that each market was different, and she couldn’t give him a specific number on that. He kept insisting, citing prices on solar panels, trying to pit renewables against nuclear – an unfortunate but rather common tenet of many environmental activists, which distracts from the important discussion on the common goal of decarbonisation.
The price argument reminds me of a strange trend I have encountered several times among a subgroup of renewable proponents: after they no longer contest the data that shows nuclear to be one of the safest energy forms, as well as one of the most efficient ways of producing carbon-free energy, suddenly the argument shifts to ‘but it costs too much’. It is as if saving human lives and the environment -arguments go out the window.
The logic of cost gets completely reversed compared with how it has been applied to renewables, namely: that with just enough investments, policy changes, and subsidies, we can get their prices down. They will become easier and cheaper to build. But when we have a solution that has the backing of IEA and IPCC as one of the crucial technologies for decarbonisation, just because it’s nuclear, we should just throw our hands in the air and stop?
Paying for actual or theoretical electricity?
There is also a tendency to try to compare prices of nuclear to the cost of renewables per installed capacity kW – not per actual kW produced, but the theoretical maximum, which for renewables is quite far from the actual electricity produced (at around a third), whereas efficiency of nuclear power is near its theoretical maximum (ca 90 % of capacity). For more, Wikipedia has a good page to start reading up on capacity factors, here. The fact that renewable installations are expected to have a much shorter lifespan (around 20-25 years, or even less) than do nuclear plants (more than 50 years), also makes this kind of ‘price per capacity’ -comparison a misleading one of apples to melons.
UPDATE: Diving into the actual numbers mentioned above in Nuclear Energy Is the Fastest and Lowest-Cost Clean Energy Solution, I put some real figures to those concepts, illustrated in this table:
Another complicating circumstance is that the role of subsidies is often ignored – renewables are made cheaper because the government has decided to make it so, paying a part of that cost with tax money. Hence, if you wish to argue against supporting nuclear power, it contributes no actual logical argument against nuclear power to say that we should not support it because of the price, when it has become more expensive thanks to our decision not to support it.
Depending on the country, subsidies are not the only reason that makes nuclear expensive. One reason is that nuclear requires large initial investment, and finding the capital presents a threshold difficulty – at least until we get through the regulatory hurdles and can get on with serial production of any one of the several small modular reactors in development.
But large initial investment and lack of subsidies are only a part of the issue. The US in particular, is a special case where the rising nuclear costs have a lot to do with aspects that are political rather than technical. Vox has a good piece on that topic, Why America abandoned nuclear power (and what we can learn from South Korea):
Nuclear construction costs in the US clearly got out of control, especially after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. But this wasn’t universal. Countries like France, Japan, and Canada kept costs fairly stable during this period. And South Korea has actually driven nuclear costs down, at a rate similar to what you see for solar. Studying those countries may offer clues about how to make nuclear cheaper so that it can become a more valuable clean energy tool.
There is a research paper from 2016 that analyzed the construction costs of US nuclear, demonstrating the drastic effect of the fear caused by Three Mile Island on the regulatory burden on nuclear construction, leading to unnecessary delays and other non-technical reasons for inefficiency. Again, this even though nuclear power is demonstrably orders of magnitude safer than any energy form that is based on burning something – but it incites a fear that is far out of proportion with its track record.
The authors of the paper give a presentation of their data in this article from the BreakThrough Institute, where they also compare the inflated construction costs of US to the trends in other countries, noting that US is quite an outlier in the data.
Moving and storing electricity has costs, too
Renewables require major investments in expansions of the electricity transmission grid. These costs are externalized to the society rather than included in their price – and as share of renewables grows, their grid needs will become increasingly taxing. Not only in construction and land requirements, but also in terms of their effect on the electricity economy, as has happened in Germany, where subsidized renewable energy rocks electricity prizes up and down, causing problems for the utility industry (a great inside analysis on the complexity in the german situation here), all in all raising the price of electricity for the consumer.
Installations of renewables, even after the most ambitious political investment campaigns, has not lead to significant reductions in our dependence on fossil fuels (read more in the recent report by Environmental Progress). As a sad example, Germany’s plan to support only renewables while excluding nuclear has locked them into a long-term carbon dependency.
For renewables to become a serious solo player in replacing coal, we would need fantastical advances in the technology for storing electricity – this, according to most the experts I’ve talked to, is not realistically anywhere near the offing. The types national capacities for storing electricity existing currently? They are in the order of a few minutes worth of the electricity needs of a country. Mark P. Mills writes about the The Incredibly Weird Physics Of The Electric Grid in Forbes:
[…] On average, there are months worth of annual national demand in storage at any given moment for every commodity from oil and natural gas, to grains and metals. The exception? Electricity. The total amount of electricity stored at any given moment in all the batteries out there for all purposes is countable in minutes, not months, worth of annual demand.
If nuclear is too expensive, why is it being built?
Even the intimidating combo of regulatory hurdles, large initial investments, lack of subsidies, and loud arguments against even considering nuclear (often based on fairly biased price comparisons) have not stopped countries from building and investing in the incredibly long-lived, reliable low-carbon energy form of nuclear power. We have decades worth of operational data on nuclear energy from France, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Finland, the United Kingdom, United States, Japan, Russia and more. The world’s first decarbonised state, Ontario, already achieved its incredible feat largely with nuclear power. Finland is building new nuclear plants, and Sweden just opened the door for building ten more reactors last year. The new build programs of China, the United Arab Emirates, India and South Korea, and the plans of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kenya, Turkey, Poland, and United Kingdom are more compelling evidence for its future potential for decarbonisation.
Newer nuclear plants are flexible enough to allow the best carbon-free back-up for the other, variable forms of carbon-free energy, enabling continued development of renewables, rather than competing with them. That’s what we need right now: the joined support of all low-carbon energy forms. Let’s work together to actually decarbonise the world, instead of making symbolic gestures to give the appearance of doing it.
For the sake of the planet, let’s start asking what we, as a society, can do to make the construction of newer, safer, and more efficient nuclear plants an easier, cheaper, and faster process. We can start by making people aware of what actual situation already is: Nuclear Energy Is the Fastest and Lowest-Cost Clean Energy Solution.
* Eric from Generation Atomic, ever the spontaneous artist, had been itching to get to join in on the protest choir -action during the panel, by singing his nuclear opera. We decided it was not an appropriate moment, but luckily he got his chance in the same room soon after. The singer behind the choir protest performed once more for the cameras of Democracy Now. Eric thought it only fair to ask for them to also hear his. I would love to see Democracy Now post *that* on their news… 😉
For more of my articles on climate and energy, and my experiences from Bonn, look here. Even better idea, however, is to read the short, evidence-dense book Climate Gamble or browse the graphs in their blog. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:
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