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Oct 24, 2012

Nuclear power costs are going up and up, Minister, not down

Contrary to what radioactive Minister Martin Ferguson might claim, the already high costs of nuclear power are growing higher amid delays and safety concerns.

While Martin Ferguson’s role as chief Labor spruiker of all things radioactive is well known, occasionally his enthusiasm for things that glow in the dark carries him away.

In particular, he appears to have yesterday made an outrageously misleading claim about nuclear power. “The only part of the energy mix not included in Australia at the moment is nuclear, and I must say that is going to reduce in costs over time as we go forward,” The Australian reported him telling a Perth conference.

In 2009 Crikey undertook a detailed examination of the costs of nuclear power overseas and locally, showing that despite a rise in construction of nuclear power stations in countries like China and India, the contribution of nuclear power to global power production was declining as ageing reactors are shut down and multi-year construction delays dog new projects. And capital costs are so great that the technology is considerably more expensive per kilowatt (kW) even than many renewable sources.

Contrary to Ferguson’s optimistic view about falling costs, things have only got worse since then.

In May, a Reuters analyst said “a clear upward trajectory is evident in developed countries” in nuclear power costs driven by increased regulation in the wake of Fukushima, project delays and skill shortages. Even before Fukushima, capital costs for nuclear power construction were rising significantly. And the two European projects Crikey discussed in 2009, in France and Finland, have since seen further delays and cost blow-outs: the company building the Flamanville reactor has estimated its per kW price will be more than double original estimates, and construction is now four years behind schedule.

The Olkiluoto-3 reactor in Finland is now five years behind schedule, rather than three back in 2009, and “massively over-budget”. Delays feed into capital costs, which feed in turn into the rate of return reactor operators must obtain once the reactor finally commences operating … whenever that is.

But construction delays — which mean higher capital and interest costs — plague the industry. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report from July, of 59 current nuclear reactor construction projects around the world, 18 are behind schedule by more than a year and of the remainder, none have yet reached projected start-up dates. One US reactor project, already running behind schedule when the nuclear power industry went into a slump following Three Mile Island and then restarted last decade, has been under construction for 39 years and recently saw a further multi-year delay.

Delays, cost overruns and the response to Fukushima have seen the credit ratings of major nuclear power companies downgraded, pushing up borrowing costs. EDF, builder of Flamanville, has been downgraded from AA- to A+ by Standard and Poor’s; TEPCO from AA in 2010 to B+ now, AREVA from A- in 2009 to BBB-; TVO, builder of Olkiluoto-3, was downgraded by Fitch to BBB+. Companies like Siemens that have announced they are exiting the industry have been endorsed by ratings agencies.

And new nuclear projects in the UK have also struggled to attract capital, with investors and partners walking out on consortia.

It’s not just new investment that’s a problem: earlier this month, post-Fukushima stress tests on European reactors identified €25 billion in upgrades and fixes needed to bring existing plants up to acceptable safety levels. Japan isn’t the only country shutting down reactors: two were shut down in Belgium in September due to safety flaws.

About the only cost for nuclear power that’s falling is the price of uranium, which is now at five-year lows as the industry struggles in the wake of events in Japan. But operating costs aren’t the issue for nuclear power: the massive capital costs and associated borrowing charges are the problem, especially when five-year construction schedules almost invariably end up double that, or more.

That’s why nuclear power is only viable, especially in a country like Australia that has no extant industry, construction or operational skill base, via either outright government ownership or massive debt government guarantees, far beyond the level of government support required by renewables.

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55 comments

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55 thoughts on “Nuclear power costs are going up and up, Minister, not down

  1. Liz A

    The most spectacular in my opinion is the Darlington upgrade in Canada: 4 new reactors of the new CANDO variety (meant to be safer and more efficient), at a cost of $10,800 per kW!

    That’s in a market that already has expertise and the plant was at a brownfields site, so additional costs of transmission and infrastructure was minimal.

    Of course, none of those “benefits” exist here in Australia.

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2009/07/15/204378/nuclear-power-plant-cost-bombshell-ontario/

  2. Modus Ponens

    Ferguson must have equated the falling price of uranium to mean that the price of using that uranium to make electrons is also falling.

    He is a bit like that. Pity he is applying that intellectual integrity to cabinet discussions.

  3. Mark Duffett

    I hope Bernard’s got a job lined up in a cherry orchard over summer.

    It’s odd to say the least that he fails to refer to the BREE Australian Energy Technology Assessment, released only a few months ago. Presumably he considers it inferior to this update of his own 2009 scholarship. He’d want to have a pretty good rationale for that, though, because figures like bree.gov.au/documents/publications/aeta/2030-LCOE-Summary-Chart.pdf show his nuclear requiring “far beyond the level of government support required by renewables” contention to be utter…um, let’s say ‘overstated’. Not to mention that there are far more issues with renewables than just the cost of building new capacity.

    engineersaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/he_economics_of_nuclear_power.pdf also gives some much-needed up to date nuance and perspective.

  4. Fauzi Rahman

    Nuclear power fuel is cheap.
    Nuclear power is not.
    The cost of (getting rid of )nuclear waste is exorbitant.

  5. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    In Sept. the NY Times did an article about Japan “phasing out” nukes by 2040, including this:

    “In announcing the energy plan, Motohisa Furukawa, the minister of state for national policy, said there was no change to the government’s quest to restart those reactors. And although the long-term plan stipulates that no new reactors will be built, it leaves open the possibility that seven reactors at varying stages of construction could be activated. That decision would be left up to the new nuclear committee headed by Mr. Tanaka. ”

    Sounds like a dead cert, doesn’t it?

    Japan simply cannot afford to turn off nuclear power, as it’s latest fuel import bill shows, so all the ‘debate’ about running costs better be put up against importing and burning hydrocarbons.

    And, lest we forget, not one person has died as a result of the accident at Fukushima, and on current analysis, no one is likely to, but near 20 thousand were killed by the tsunami. You’d hardly think so the way the media love to dramatise it.

    Prediction: We will be buying our small modular thorium reactors from China before Japan is ever nuclear free.

    And if not, the planet will be cooked, because renewables (or ‘unreliables’ if you like) cannot replace the vast coal burning industry the world relies on more and more and more… every single day.

    Take ya pick.

  6. Coaltopia

    Who’s blowing the wind up Fergie’s ass this time?

    Mabye he can visit the Levy County Nuclear Power Plant in Florida and ask them how their projects costs quadrupled from $5 billion to $20 billion.

  7. Microseris

    If proponents of nuclear power can get the new technology generation 4 reactors, with significant safeguards incorporated in the the design, functional then nuclear may have a future in Aust.

    Until then its about as viable as clean coal.

  8. michael r james

    MarkD at 2:43 pm

    (Yes, I’m rising to the bait.) Both links rely upon those pretty pictures of Levelized Costs, which magically show that nuclear is one of the lowest costs, and even retrofitting of CCS (carbon capture storage) to existing brown coal plants is cheaper than almost any alternative!

    Other than the opacity of whatever lies behind those magic “levilizers”, this would of course explain why the world is rushing to build CCS. It isn’t just its nuclear plans collapsing due to outrageously optimistic costs (they probably had the same set of economists cooking up the same levelized costs) in the UK but its big plans for CCS have also collapsed. Due to funders withdrawing at the speed of sound. The most significant CCS retrofitted to an actual operating coal-burning plant, Mountaineer in the US, cost north of $100M to capture only 1.5% (20MW equivalent) of the giant 1300MW plant which suggests the cost of CCS for 90% of the plants output would be about $4bn. As I reported here in Crikey back in 2009. At that time the first truly honest assessment of CCS was made by Australia’s GCCSI, and there has hardly been a peep about the subject since–including from Ferguson. Given the low position on that LCOE graph you cited, do you want to explain this anomaly?

    You see Mark, those favourable levelized cost graphs are only intended by industry to persuade government (or other suckers) to greenlight projects. But when industry is forced into actually finding the finance, the brutal truth emerges and they run for the hills.

  9. michael r james

    MarkD at 2:43 pm

    I have a reply in moderation.
    I also laughed when I saw that I mispelled levelizers as levilizers (l’evil-izers!). Freudian.

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