The nuclear option

No turning back

Two weeks ago, I showed how the cost and risks of nuclear energy stack up against the competition. Last week I delved deeper into risk, examining past nuclear accidents to see what we can learn about the future of the technology and the industry. This week, we’ll look at the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry as it is currently constituted.

Nuclear energy suffers from a fundamental economic paradox, which follows inevitably from three facts. First, building a new plant takes a long time. Second, building a new plant takes a lot of money. Third, because of the time and money involved, such projects cannot proceed without financial support from the voting and taxpaying public. Finally, because the public is fickle by nature, it is inevitable that plans will change so that new plants take even longer and cost even more, resulting in even more of a financial burden on the public purse.

Just how long does it take to build a nuclear plant? The Vogtle Electric Generating Plant near Waynesboro, Georgia has two reactors, one of which took eleven years to build, the other thirteen. Last week, for the first time in 34 years, the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved construction of two additional reactors; the build began in 2009, with one unit expected to take seven years and the other eight. Of the four reactors at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario, one took nine years, another took eleven, and the last two took twelve. In France, construction of the Flamanville Unit 3 reactor is expected to be completed in 2016 after nine years.

What about the cost? Vogtle was originally supposed to cost US$660 million, but ended up with a US$8.87 billion price tag. The newly-approved reactors planned for that plant are estimated to cost US$15 billion, but how much they will actually cost is anybody’s guess. The initial estimate for Darlington was C$3.9 billion, but the final cost was C$14.4 billion. Flamanville estimates started at €3.3 billion but are now thought to reach €6 billion, and construction has barely passed the halfway mark.

And how does the taxpayer get involved? At first glance, Vogtle looks like a private venture. Georgia Power, the principal project shareholder, is a subsidiary of Southern Company, a literal powerhouse in the US electricity generation sector. Southern is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is part of the S&P 500 index, and had revenues of US$17.46 billion in 2010. However, Georgia Power’s US$6.1 billion stake in the Vogtle project has a loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy in the amount of US$3.4 billion. Other project shareholders have loan guarantees totalling US$4.9 billion, meaning that more than half of the project cost is underwritten by the US taxpayer. Darlington is owned by Ontario Power Generation, a provincial crown corporation (meaning the Province of Ontario is the sole shareholder). Flamanville is wholly owned by EDF; while EDF is listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, 85% of its shares are owned by the French government.

When called to account for its history of astonishing construction cost overruns, the nuclear industry is quick to point the finger elsewhere – mainly at elected officials, and by extension the taxpayer. And they are justified in doing so. In response to nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the public demanded stricter regulations on plant designs. This led to massive cost increases for all plants already under construction, to say nothing of any remediation measures at completed plants.

Here’s the rub. Nothing has changed. Nuclear plants aren’t getting any cheaper. Building them isn’t getting any faster. Taxpayers aren’t being relieved of the burden of underwriting the construction cost. Taxpayers have not suddenly acquired a blind faith that nuclear energy is the answer to all their prayers.

The industry will continue estimating costs assuming no change to regulations, and no revisions to electricity demand estimates – in spite of the clear evidence that such assumptions are a pipe dream. Politicians will continue taking industry estimates on faith, and moving ahead with new plant construction. The public will continue being as fickle as it always has been, moving the goalposts in the middle of the construction game. Construction costs for new plants will continue to be revised to multiples of the original estimates. And John Q. Public will be left with the bill.

Back in the days of the cold war, the so-called nuclear option was a terrifying one. It was a choice from which there was no turning back. The commander-in-chief would have to launch the entire arsenal at the enemy, or nothing at all.

In matters of national energy policy, the nuclear option is not that different. Once construction starts on a plant, the commitment is made. Few politicians have the stomach for cancelling a project once it is in progress, even when it is evident that the costs are spiralling out of control. And once the plant is built, few politicians would have the guts to shut it down.

In political terms, the ten years it takes to build a nuclear plant is an eternity. The typical term of public office is four years. An elected representative that decides to press the nuclear button is almost guaranteed to be long gone by the time the electorate realizes the enormity of their mistake.

Throughout its history, nuclear power has proven itself to be the greatest rip-off on Earth. The only way to avoid getting fleeced is for everyone to vote against it, and to kill it before it ever gets off the drawing board.

So vote early, and vote often.

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9 thoughts on “The nuclear option”

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Steve – A pleasure to hear from you as always.
      If the technology lends itself to smaller-scale plants, it would certainly make it much more attractive to the private sector. There would still be a great deal of public scrutiny and a need for strong regulatory protections, but if the plants can be built significantly faster, they would be less susceptible to cost overruns.
      However, my research didn’t turn up any evidence that a thorium-fueled reactor would be dramatically different from a uranium-fueled one (at least in size and technical complexity). My understanding is that while the thorium fuel cycle offers significant advantages over the uranium cycle on the front and back end (mining/processing, and storage/disposal), the actual operation and design of thorium plants would not be significantly different from established uranium-fueled plants. Some existing plant designs could even be adapted to “burn” thorium.
      The IAEA has identified some technical challenges with thorium, such as the much higher sintering temperature compared to uranium, so these would have to be overcome before the technology could be deployed on a large scale. At the moment there are only two commercial-scale thorium plants in operation, both in India (a country which has large thorium deposits and is hence enthusiastic about the possibilities). So even with the advantages of thorium, commercialization of the technology is still many years away. Instead of planning new reactors that will have the same old problems, we should be investing in more research to move the thorium ball further down the field.
      In the mean time, renewable energy is free, the technologies to exploit it are proven, and only need to be coupled with storage and smart microgrids to provide an immediate solution. I’d prefer a bird in the hand to two in the bush.

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    2. There seems to be some confusion here — Thorium Molten-Salt reactors (MSRs), as designed and operated at ORNL in the 1960s, don’t use solid fuel, so the “sintering temperature” remark above is odd.

      As to size & cost, the fact that MSRs are passively-safe (no station power needed for shutdown), means there’s no emergency cooling structure, etc. And, since MSRs run unpressurized, there’s no need for expensive containment structures. There’s also no need for water cooling, allowing siting anywhere and eliminating threats to natural waterways.

      The costs & land consumption are much lower than any other power source, because MSRs deliver more power per acre, with lower fuel cost than any other sources, including ‘renewables’.

      A windmill, for example, requires ~700 tons of material per tower — all fossil-fuel processed — coal, iro ore to make steel at 5 tons of coal per ton of steel; 100 cubic yards of concrete, whose cement is produced by mining & crushing and kilning limestone via fossil fuel; and so on. The land consumption burden is also about 2 acres per MW peak. With the average wind duty cycle of 25%, this means that a standard, 1GWe power plant occupying 100 acres, would only be replaced by over 4000, 4MW windmills, consuming 32,000 acres, not counting the transmission towers, line & corridors cutting the landscape; and not counting the inevitable, permanent transmission loss of about 10%, plus the inefficiencies of any compensating storage or on-demand generation to counter wind’s inevitable variability. This, of course, also ignores the cost to species in air & on grounds cleared for wind development, and the noise impacts to those living in the areas.

      There’s indeed a real ‘renewable’ in local solar PV & hot water, on existing structures — >2% of all Earth’s land is covered by human structure. This is DG (distributed generation) and supported by environmental groups and Calif. because it consumes no new land, operates more predictably that wind and at higher efficiencies, and because it adds robustness & efficiency to the grid. Coupled with parked EVs, DG solar provides intelligent grid control & load balancing. An excellent design is BetterPlace.com, which is now rolling out in Denmark.

      Inexpensive, safe baseload from Thorium MSRs, plus efficiency & DG are all the future requires be deployed, for thousands of years.

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      1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

        For an explanation of my sintering remark, I’ll refer you to page 2 of the International Atomic Energy Agency publication, . The document addresses the thorium fuel cycle in general, not solely MSRs, and some thorium-fueled reactor designs use solid fuel. Regardless, we are discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; there are no Thorium MSRs in production (the ORNL reactor was an experiment only, and one that ended 42 years ago), so I stand by my “bird in the hand” comment. I’m all for investing in R&D on thorium MSRs. The technology has plenty of promise in theory, but it isn’t solving any problems today.

        As for the comparison with wind turbines, you speak as if a wind turbine renders land unusable for any other purpose. It does not – farming and wind power have gone hand in hand since time immemorial. Wind turbines have their detractors, but they exist in fact rather than theory. As for the carbon footprint of wind turbine production, it declines with every unit that goes online, thereby reducing demand for fossil fuel-generated power! Thorium MSRs will use concrete aplenty as well (though not nearly as much as uranium-fueled plants), and they will also suffer line losses and other drawbacks from extensive transmission lines; people will still remember Fukushima and Chernobyl even in 2040 when 4th gen nuclear hits the market, and they will veto nuclear plant construction anywhere near urban areas. I heartily agree with you that PV, solar hot water, and efficiency improvements must be part of the energy mix, and they have the same advantage as wind – widespread, proven adoption.

        No one energy source is a silver bullet. As with diet, only a healthy mix of sources will provide a sustainable foundation for our economy. Until the day I see a thorium MSR in production, I’ll continue to vote for wind turbines.

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      2. Liquid fuels are the big problem and lecetrical generation from nuclear power plants isn’t going to solve it. The number of lecetrically powered commercial and personal vehicles is so small it’s laughable. There isn’t enough niobium in the world to make enough electric motors to replace all the internal combustion engines.Dave, you’re glossing over all of the problems with algae exactly the same way you accuse the thorium backers. It’s nowhere near commercialization, press releases not withstanding. Open pools in the Texas panhandle face an unsolved problem of contamination. All sorts of unwanted species would be perfectly happy to compete with the good algae in your ponds and while sealed systems can obviously do a much better job keeping the critters out, their expense is not where it needs to be to be competitive. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that some sort of biofuel is the only practical long term mobile energy source, but algae ain’t close to being it. I see lots of press releases on Joule’s website, but not many demonstrated numbers. If you seriously believe that algae today can make ethanol for $30/bbl equivalent sorry $20/bbl on one of their press releases , then I’ll happily buy your IPO after you demonstrate those numbers. I suspect I won’t be investing in your company any time soon. I do retain some hope for Coskata’s pyrolysis process, but they haven’t done a very good job of meeting their milestones either. Oh, and Khosla loves them too. If you need a practical replacement for oil in the next few years, the only game in town is shale gas. Good thing it’s a good game. BTW, unless you intend for the non-viable electric car fleet to be even more non-viable by using superconducting motors, then I think you meant Neodymium and not Niobium. There actually is enough of it in the world, but we don’t produce enough of it in refined form on an annual basis. You can thank China somewhat for that. Finally, for all of your complaints about molten salts I wonder if you actually read the concluding paragraph in the ORNL link you provided. Here’s an excerpt that interested me: Although much experimental work remains to be done before the constructionof a complete power reactor system can begin, it is apparent thatconsiderable progress has been achieved in solving the material problemsof the reactor core . A strong, stable, and corrosion-resistant alloy withgood welding and forming characteristics is available . I remain agnostic on molten salt reactors, but the physics of Thorium are pretty compelling regardless.

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      3. I know that my English is poor, I especially have prebloms with English idiom, but re-reading my post above, I cannot see where I wrote what you seem to have understood from it.To clarify, I assumed that it was common knowledge among those that support nuclear energy that the issues of proliferation and waste were fraudulent. As such, thorium is no less vulnerable to to the lies of antinuclear forces than uranium is. Thus the slight technical advantages that are claimed for thorium are practically meaningless for public relation purposes.Take for example the plan to denature the fuel, which in essence renders it too radioactive to handle. Yes this would make it difficult to use as a feedstock for the production of nuclear explosives. However it would, also by design make the resulting waste much more of a danger than today’s discharged fuel. I think it’s obvious what aspect of this scheme is going to be leveraged by antinuclear propagandists.The salient point being that for all intents and purposes one lie is as good as another as far as the enemies of nuclear energy are concerned. In promoting a scheme to denature the fuel we would be handing them two points: one that this type of reactor is a potential proliferation risk, (otherwise why denature)and proof positive that the spent fuel is a major radiation hazard.This is diametrically the opposite that MSR supporters have been saying. In what world does anyone think that they won’t leverage this to their own ends?However the bottom line is that none of these GenIV designs are close to being at the point where they can be deployed, and they will not be for decades.I am sorry, but I spent too much time sitting on committees evaluating new technology in the course of my career to have any illusions of where things stand here. I know that one way or the other, promoters of these designs are going to have to convince a tablefull of people that think the way I do, that will be charged with determining if the organization the work for should invest, and the ramifications of being wrong.I also know from now forty years in industry, just how long it takes the good ideas to reach maturity, and just how much money needs to be invested.Look, if I didn’t think our backs were against the wall, I wouldn’t bother with this. These types of VHS vs,Beta, big-endian /little-endian debates are as exhausting as they are generally pointless. In my opinion at this stage of the game people like Kirk Sorensen should be applying his apparently great oratorical skills to the promotion of nuclear energy as it is currently deployed, not selling a dream.

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  1. Alex – I would like to congratulate you on a fine post on a topic of considerable significance (nuclear energy – cost – and America’s energy future).
    I would like to suggest that your post could be strengthened by further analysis of what drives cost (and delay) in the nuclear technology sector. To have a chance at successfully addressing the current cost challenge for nuclear, we have to accurately and honestly access the cause and start with an accurate BIG PICTURE. I suggest that it is NRC regulation that currently drives cost (and delay) in the American nuclear sector.
    Dr. Bernard Cohen of Pittsburg University made in-depth studies in the 1980s and 1990s of what drives the dramatic rise in the cost of nuclear technology. Dr. Cohen still, very graciously, makes the text of a book he wrote on his research into nuclear technology cost available online for free –
    Dr. Bernard Cohen, “Cost of Nuclear Power Plants – What went wrong?” –
    http://bit.ly/eb9Y7M
    (Regulatory ratcheting, quite aside from the effects of inflation, quadrupled the cost of a nuclear power plant).
    Dr. Cohen’s conclusion is that current US Regulation is responsible for pricing up nuclear by no less than 400% (inflation corrected) over the true cost of nuclear in ~1973, the year before the legislation that created NRC was passed (The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974). Construction delays, as documented by Dr. Cohen, stretched out from about 5.5 years in 1973 to over 12 years in the late 1980s. The last US commercial nuclear reactor to be completed (Watts Bar Unit 1) required 23 years to go from the initial construction license application to a finished reactor producing power into the grid. The major influence which has driven the cost of nuclear is not advances in passively safe designs or the cost of labor or materials but rather the cost and delay impacts of nuclear regulation (and to a lesser degree, the impacts of harassing law suites on delaying the licensing process).
    The cost of nuclear could literally be cut to 1/4th their current levels in very short order by revamping America’s Nuclear Regulation and bringing it into parity with the level of regulation observed in the lands of our industrial competition (France & Asia).
    Note: Historical Graph – new orders for nuclear powerplants and the impact of the NRC’s style of “imbalanced” nuclear regulation
    http://on.fb.me/giZ2ji

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    1. You know if it wouldn’t be a total amnadonbent of my personal ethics, and if the situation wasn’t so dire, I would be tempted to join the other side just to illustrate just how pointless and dangerous this type of thing can be.Yes, thorium itself cannot be used to make nuclear weapons – that is hardly the point. But the fact is that there is nothing intrinsic about thorium itself that makes its potential fuel-cycles any more proliferation resistant that those of uranium.Furthermore, proliferation should not even be an element in this conversation, because the path any nation would take to construct a nuclear arsenal would not take it through its power reactor sector. Nor does nuclear energy need protection from amateurs seeking to make a nuclear bomb – the whole idea is so patently ridiculous that it hardly needs to be addressed let alone taken seriously. The bottom line is that the decision to embark on a nuclear weapons program is one made at the highest levels, and done in the full knowledge that the creation of a militarily significant number of weapons (a nuclear weapon being an explosive nuclear device and a delivery system) will be extremely expensive, and have profound geopolitical consequences. It is not something that a country is ‘tempted’ to do just because they can.Nor does thorium have any great advantages in the area of nuclear waste. Used the only way it practically can be now, in standard reactors, it needs reprocessing with all its attendant wastes, and leaves left over material to be dealt with. Claims by MSR supporters are not proven as the back-end process that they envision has not yet passed from theory and the wastes produced have not yet been established as any less of a hazard than those from current reactors.As well like proliferation, nuclear waste ‘problems’ are artificial constructions created to inhibit the growth of nuclear energy, and nothing is going to stop those still opposed from simply telling a new set of lies about thorium. Lies that are going to be just as difficult to fight as the current ones, exacerbated by the fact that they will be seen as exposing the ‘truth’ that current supporters of thorium tried to hide.The situation with the climate and other impacts of the pollution caused by fossil-fuels are the only things that should be on the minds of nuclear supporters, because nuclear is the only way out of the mess that doesn’t involve a collapse in our standard of living or worse, and time is running out. There is no time for this sort of debate.In a world where nations like Germany intend to do away with nuclear, where many others are reconsidering a commitment to nuclear power, and where there are still nations like Australia where nuclear technology was stillborn, the focus now needs to be on promoting builds with what we have. Nerdy arguments over which GenIV designs are best and hollow promises about thorium do not advance that agenda, and may well do harm to it. Reply

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  2. Ayesha,

    Your English is pretty good actually. But I can not follow your logic.

    I am gong to quote Gordon Edwards:

    For the past year, through interviews with employees of TEPCO (some officially sanctioned by the company, some without its knowledge), government officials and nuclear industry experts in Japan and abroad, we’ve attempted to answer two of the most fundamental issues at the heart of nuclear debate now roiling Japan: how could the accident at Fukushima Daiichi have happened — and how, in particular, could it
    have happened in Japan, a country once known, not so long ago, for its sheer management and engineering competence?

    The answers are bracing. The epic disaster at Fukushima Daiichi represents failure at almost every level, from how the Japanese government regulates nuclear power, to how TEPCO managed critical details of the crisis under desperate circumstances.
    …….

    It seems that “nuclear energy as it currently deployed” has some inherent issues. There are better solutions. More cost effective solutions. Doing more of the same is caving to the “sunk development cost” and assets that AECL and now SNC Lavilin are intent on recovering.

    Respectfully,
    Steve

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