As we know the nuclear industry is on life support right now. Globally we are seeing a trend whereby reactors are being turned off quicker than they can be replaced. And even those few reactor projects in play rarely extend beyond Photoshopped art work. Just recently the Moorside plant was cancelled in the UK.
The anti-nuke brigade seem to think that the kindest thing to do is hold a pillow over the nuclear industry’s head and send nuclear power on its way. While the nuclear chearleaders ignore all negative news and claim a new dawn is just around the corner. Well an interesting article which I recently stumbled up from Vox news kind of highlights the situation. It argues that the outlook for nuclear energy is grim and its unlikely to get better any time soon.
The article is based on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And before anyone says “fake news”, this is a peer reviewed journal and the authors are supporters of nuclear energy. Both the Vox article and the PNAS study highlight how large numbers of US nuclear power plants have already closed, or are likely to close within the next decade. And the replacements? Well, as in Europe, they are proving to be eye wateringly expensive, $25 billion for Voglte plant in Georgia for example ($11,000 per installed kW, about ten times the installation cost of solar).
Naturally this means very few utilities seem prepared to build any more reactors. In fact several projects were recently cancelled (yet more blow-back from the bankruptcy of Westinghouse). And in other cases they’ve even halted projects part way through construction and just taken the financial hit from walking off site, notably the VC Summer plant in SC which has been abandoned despite spending $9 billion on it. As a result it seems, very much as the world nuclear status report has long been warning, the nuclear industry is entering into a state of terminal decline, which it seems unlikely to ever be able to break out off any time soon.
But what about those new next generation reactors we’re working on, or SMR’s, surely once they become available that will turn things around, won’t it? Well the PNAS report points out that billions has been spent on these new reactor designs since the 1990’s with “very little to show for it”. Or in other words, if we’re expecting Gen IV reactors to suddenly appear any time soon, think again. It will likely be some time before we’re even field testing prototypes. And there’s no guarantee these new designs will be any cheaper than the existing ones.
The PNAS report also points out that, under any plausible scenario that they could imagine, power from SMR’s will work out as more expensive than power from conventional nuclear plants (nevermind compared to alternative sources of power, such as renewables). Which is exactly what both I and the UK’s NNL concluded sometime ago. At best SMR’s would be only able to fulfil a handful of niche roles. Indeed, recently here in the UK energy firms pointed out that in order to build SMR’s the government will have to hand over billions in taxpayer money (the Tories seem to have gotten it into their head they are possible solution to post-brexit energy shortages) . A strike price or a subsidy just ain’t going to cut it.
The report finishes on something of a positive note, pointing to some possible markets for nuclear energy, notably industrial heat, desalination, hydrogen production, etc. This is something I’ve also long pointed towards, you’re throwing away about two thirds of the energy keeping the fish in the outlet channel warm. However, I’ve also been very quick to highlight the downsides. For example, transporting heat long distances isn’t really feasible. You’d have to build your power plant right on the edge of cities, near to industrial areas or residential blocks (good luck with that one!). The sales cost of heat is also much less profitable than it is for electricity. In the UK gas (which basically means heat) sells for about 3-4p/kWh while electricity sells for closer to 12-16p/kWh. If you can’t compete against fossil fuels and renewables in the electricity market, how in blue blazes do you hope to compete in a market when the prices is 3-4 times lower!
All in all, this exactly what I’ve been warning would happen for several years now. Nuclear energy supporters seem to have this “noble lie” attitude whereby they could get away with selling nuclear on the back of claims which they knew were fundamentally untrue, then break the bad news to investors and politicians later. Well, they’ve now been found out. And the end result is investors and politicians are walking, leaving behind a lot of every expensive holes in the ground. And the handful of projects ongoing (generally because they are too far gone to reverse) will stand as monuments to folly, guaranteeing nobody will ever invest in nuclear projects again. Which, has some significant implications.
I mean let’s suppose the Chinese LFTR unit, or Terrapower come up with a viable commercial nuclear reactor in a few decades time. Who in their right mind is going to invest in such a reactor, having gotten burned by the nuclear industry more than once before? By contrast companies are prepared to invest in renewables because, while they ain’t perfect, they keep their promises. Renewable are growing steadily, with incremental improvements in costs and performance year on year.
Of course, a collapse of the nuclear industry just means the gap that needs to be filled by renewables becomes that much larger and difficult to achieve.