Nov 19, 2009

The nuclear option: too slow, too costly

It’s not radioactivity or scare campaigns that are the nuclear industry's biggest problem, it's the maths: the numbers show that for decades to come, it will offer less and less of a solution to climate change, and simply takes too long and costs too much to develop.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

The spruikers for nuclear energy never say die. Climate change has given them a whole new lease of life. No-emission nuclear power should, they say, be part of Australia’s response to climate change. This week ANSTO chief Ziggy Switkowski said we should aim for 50 nuclear plants by 2050. It won’t happen until the ALP fundamentally changes its policy on nuclear power. The Coalition is too scarred by their experience in the last election, when John Howard’s flirtation with the debate led to a Labor scare campaign about nuclear reactors in every backyard. Alas, that wasn’t quite how the right-wing media hoped the issue would play out when the Switkowski Report was released in 2006. Still, hope springs eternal in Liberal hearts. In Tuesday’s joint partyroom meeting, Julie Bishop pointed out that “19 out of 20” G20 countries are pursuing nuclear power. Australia, self-evidently, is the nuclear laggard. Tomorrow we’ll look at just how much it would cost for Australia to seriously embrace nuclear power as a response to climate change. Today, let’s consider whether the rest of the world is going nuclear in the way that proponents suggest. First, some bald numbers taken from the German Government-commissioned World Nuclear Industry Status Report from August this year. There are currently 435 reactors operating worldwide, nine less than in 2002. There are 52 reactors listed as “under construction” (more on that later), down from a peak in 1979 of 233 and 120 in 1987. No new plants were connected anywhere in 2008. The last plant to come online was the Romanian plant Cernavoda-2, which took 24 years to build. Reactors now provide slightly less power worldwide than they did two years ago. By way of context, the 2 GW of nuclear power connected in 2006-07 was equal to one tenth of the wind power installed globally in 2007. More than double the amount of wind power was installed in the U.S. alone in 2007. Clearly the nuclear industry is yet to begin recovering from the slump in reactor building worldwide after its peak in the mid-1980s. That poses two problems for any “nuclear renaissance” and its capacity to provide a legitimate, timely response to climate change. Firstly, the global “fleet” of reactors is ageing. The average age of plants worldwide is 25 years. The industry maintains that reactors have a lifetime of 40 years (and that of new generations of reactors 60 years), but the average age of the 123 reactors that have been closed across the world has been 22 years. Even assuming a lifetime of 40 years, and assuming all 52 reactors “under construction” proceed, 42 reactors need to be planned and built between now and 2015, and a further 192 built out to 2025, to replace the current nuclear power capacity. It is highly unlikely that nuclear power will therefore play anything other than a declining role in the provision of the world’s power supply in coming decades. Then there’s the second, and more problematic issue: nuclear power plants take an extraordinarily long time to build. The 24-year gestation of the Romanian plant was unusual – plants have been built in five years in China, Russia and South Korea. The global average construction period for recent connections in 9 years. This means that even if Australia adopted a crash course of nuclear reactor building, there wouldn’t be a single watt of power available until late next decade at the earliest. However, reactor construction is subject to costly delays. Some reactors are listed as “under construction” for decades and then simply abandoned. The Generation III Olkiluoto-3 reactor in Finland – the flagship of the nuclear renaissance in Europe – has been under construction for four years. It is currently three years behind schedule, €1.7b over its €3.3b budget and mired in litigation. A new plant under construction in Flamanville in France was halted last year by safety authorities and is scheduled to start in 2012-13, with the cost likely to finish at €4.5b, up from its initial €3.3b cost. The industry faces other problems. The long downturn in reactor construction and operation has created bottlenecks and skill shortages. For example, there is only one facility in the world, in Japan, that makes the large forgings required for reactor pressure vessels. And the ageing of the western workforce has particular implications for the nuclear industry, which has failed to attract many graduates in recent decades. In France, there are currently more than 1200 positions available within the industry and only 300 nuclear science graduates a year. There will also continue to be problems accessing capital for the industry. The long lead times for construction and uncertain economics of nuclear power prompted ratings agency Moody’s, in a bluntly-titled release in July, to declare that it would take “a more cautious view toward issuers that are actively pursuing new nuclear power generation. In a post-GFC world of constrained credit, nuclear power looks far riskier than it used to. “Once operating, nuclear plants are viewed favourably due to their economics and no-carbon emission footprint,” Moody’s said, “but history gives us reason to be concerned about possible balance sheer challenges, the lack of tangible current efforts to defend the existing ratings, and the substantial execution of risk involved in building new nuclear power facilities.” It’s not radioactivity or scare campaigns that are the nuclear industry’s biggest problem, it’s the maths. The numbers show that for decades to come, it will offer less and less of a solution to climate change, and it simply takes too long and costs too much to develop. Tomorrow: what it would cost for Australia to go nuclear.

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239 thoughts on “The nuclear option: too slow, too costly

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx Bernard, a good start. I trust tomorrow’s instalment will include the cost of storing nuclear waste until it is safe, say, for 1,000 years.

  2. Evan Beaver

    Good stuff Bernard, you’re preaching to the converted with me, but I still like showing up to church to hear the sermon…

    This comments section is going to get hairy.

  3. james mcdonald

    That’s the way, keep coming up with reasons why we can’t solve climate change. Brilliant.

  4. Evan Beaver

    Come on James, weren’t you listening? It is highly unlikely that a nuclear power plant, let alone 10, can be built in enough time to make the required difference, in the required time.

  5. Barry Brook

    You mention the FOAK build in France/Finland.

    France is the stand-out real-world example of the ultimate scalability of nuclear power, with 59 nuclear plants generating over 63 GWe (80% of supply). The French are the world’s biggest electricity exporter, with the cheapest power rates and lowest carbon footprint per person in the EU. At the height of its nuclear build-out phase in the 1970s to 1980s, France was rolling out 6 plants per year. Six countries have a national GDP higher than France, and all already possess the technology to build generation III+ and fast spectrum reactors: USA, China, Japan, India, Germany and the UK. At France’s historical rate, these countries could together build 120 plants per year, with no greater urgency than the French brought to bear on their road to energy independence. Indeed, over the last decade, China has been rolling out over 50 large coal-fired power stations of equivalent size each year. So at this quite feasible rate, it would take 30 years to build 3,500 plants in 7 countries.

    So we know it CAN be done, outside of the fast Asian build times. The real question an investigative journalist like you should be doing, Bernard, is asking why it isn’t happening now, what can be done to change it, or if it is not possible what are the feasible alternatives. As James McDonald noted, otherwise, you’re simply coming up with reasons why we can’t solve climate change.

    More details here:
    TCASE 4: Energy system build rates and material inputs:



  6. Mark Duffett

    This is all fair enough, as far as it goes.

    But tomorrow, can you please not do what so many nuclear naysayers do, namely: ‘Going nuclear will cost x billion dollars and take y years, x and y are too high, QED’ and leave it at that. If you really want to contribute something to this debate, let’s have an apples vs apples comparison of the alternatives. Let’s also hear how big x and y have to be to build enough windmills, photovoltaics, thermal tubes and five thousand metre-deep drill holes to make the required difference, and make a judgement about those numbers as well.

    Otherwise, as James McDonald suggests, you’re simply saying that we’re stuffed. Either that, or we’re simply not World War II/Manhattan Project-type serious about solving the problem.

  7. Evan Beaver

    I can tell you Mark that a 250MW solar thermal plant, with 8 hours storage HAS been built in Spain in 9 months. There’s also no nuclear waste.

  8. Michael James

    James McD (and MattB & Roger Clifton from yesterday’s blog on Macfarlane):
    What you don’t seem to understand is that to arrive at a course of action to solve a problem, one has to dispassionately examine each potential “solution” to eliminate those “less likely” or “extremely improbable”. I don’t know what else you expect to be done. Bernard is taking an approach very similar to my earlier articles; and which is convergence as any sensible look at developing policy does this: one does not necessarily look at all aspects of each potential solution. One first addresses ONLY those issues which might be clearer or easier to obtain convincing evidence; afterall if nuclear is impractical on such issues then you never have to deal with such difficult-to-resolve arguments that just go round in circles (siting, waste management & storage, n-proliferation, end-of-life decommissioning etc). This is the equivalent of testing a provable/disprovable hypothesis. I did this with CCS over the past year –ie. it is not whether it will work etc—but on other issues that it fails; and guess what, even the GCCSI agrees, and now Macfarlane!
    BK has restated even more clearly today that nuclear fails on a few easy to assess criteria (cost and timing). Barry Brook- or Tom Blees -style obsession with new designs (IFR, fast breeders that chew waste) that any cursory examination of timing and cost (decades and unknown but huge $) makes pointless. That is why, Gavin, I do not expect and certainly hope Bernard will not go there in tomorrow’s article, as those issues are nothing but distractions.
    Excuse me for being preachy/arrogant but many bloggers simply need to try to learn about how to arrive at impartial decisions. I don’t believe either BK or myself started with any particular bias on the nuclear issue; certainly speaking for myself I was probably inclined to think nuclear may have been a part of the solution (having lived in France for a decade and zero complaints about their incredibly successful n-industry). But especially for Australia, it no longer makes any kind of sense. So with CCS dead in the water and nuclear ditto, it comes down to wind (now), solar-thermal (almost), geothermal (highly certain) and solar-PV (longer timescale to become economic). Perhaps we (gov) have to set timetable and mechanisms to winnow this list further, say over the next 5 years, since being so small a country we may not be able to invest adequate resources for success (or to get to demonstration stage to even know).

  9. ian kemp

    I am mystified as to why it is claimed that nuclear energy has a ‘no-carbon’ footprint. There is massive energy consumption in mining, refinining, transporting and enriching the Uranium Oxide fuel, all supplied by burning fossil fuels.

    Calculations from Dr. Mudd’s team at Monash University show that the current emissions of 30 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of Uranium oxide are likely to increase to 300 tonnes of CO2 at the Olympic Dam mine after its current expansion – due to changes in the mining & mineral processing. And these calculations exclude the provision of water, large amounts of solvents and other chemicals used in the refining process.

    Around 25 years ago I worked in an industry supplying components for nuclear power stations. Among the scientific community it was widely believed that the energy requirement in building the plant, operating and decommissioning it including reprocessing the waste, exceeded the total energy produced by the plant, when you accounted for electrical transmission losses. And all that input came from… fossil fuels. The only way to get zero emssions is to go to the Fast Breedeer technology based on Plutonium, which has a different set of problems meaning it never went past the pilot stage.

  10. meski

    @Ian: There is a high fossil fuel consumption *today* in mining/processing nuclear fuel – well, of course there is, because Australia isn’t using nuclear power plants – if it were, we could be using the output of said nuclear power to do the mining /processing. Don’t use the weak argument that you can’t use electricity to power mining trucks etc, you can convert it to hydrogen / oxygen and use that. Current calculations for Olympic Dam are completely irrelevant.

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