Nuclear Requiem


Infographic charting the rise and fall of nuclear energy [Wired, 2017]

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.

VC Summer Sept 18 2017 IMG_0447, upclose

Abandoned engineering, the VC Summer plant, idle now for sometime, the world’s most expensive hole in the ground

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.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
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13 Responses to Nuclear Requiem

  1. Paul Baars says:

    Last week there was an article: “Union of Concerned Scientists calls for policy to preserve nuclear”.
    On their website you do not find any anti-nuclear statements any more. They think climate change is more important than the downsides of nuclear energy.

    A few weeks ago an article read that nuclear generation was at the highest level ever (>400MWe) with more than 50 reactors under construction. Even Japan is restarting lots of reactors.

    Sure, nuclear has downsides. The build is very expensive. But look at Germany and California: energy will be much more expensive if you turn to renewables… Read Michael Shellenbergs article
    “Had They Bet On Nuclear, Not Renewables, Germany & California Would Already Have 100% Clean Power”.

    Only time will tell the future of nuclear and renewables. In the meantime, lets support both technologies to fight climate change.

    • daryan12 says:

      The problem is I’d argue we’re too far gone. Take the US, they’ve got what, a hundred reactors? And most will close in the next decade or two. That means in order to just stand still they’d need to add 4-5 reactors per year and they’re struggling to get just one built over 10 years. And who is going to fund them? There seems to be no appetite for this.

      In the UK, Hinkley C will probably get built, but many I know in the energy industry predict it will be a white elephant. There’s a 50/50 chance I’d guess we might get another plant too, but that’s not going to generate any power until 2040, well after the bulk of the reactors close down and their capacity gets fill by something else.

      Renewables is already cheaper per kWh. Yes there is the bigger picture factor of what fills in the gaps, but that’s a separate question (there needs to be a subsidy not so much for per kWh but per available installed kW). Unless there’s some sort of artificial shortage somehow (then again, brexit might do that!), its difficult to see a reason for anyone investing in nuclear. And even then, given that a reactor takes a decade or two, while some energy storage option costs less per installed kW and can be implemented quicker, they’d just go down that route instead.

      • Paul Baars says:

        If a future president in the US installs CO2 reduction laws ($0,02/kWh or more) then nuclear will thrive again. Old stations will remain open and VC Summer will be finished. Tax coal and gas, subsidise CO2 free power.

        The same is true in the UK. The Chinese build an AP1000 in less than 10 years, we could learn from this. Money is not a real problem if you allow private capital for nuclear stations. In my country we have tax free wind and solar bonds. Do the same for nuclear.

        Renewables are cheaper? Not if you integrate battery storage. Without storage you have to integrate backup power in the costs. An article last week calculated that battery storage has to be 1000x cheaper for renewables to be of any use. We should not subsidise solar and wind without battery backup. Germany already pays surrounding countries to get rid of their excess solar power on sunny days. PST transformers are used in the Czech Republic to get rid of the power of unstable German solar.

        In short: give nuclear the same benefits as solar and wind. Do not allow renewables without storage. This will create a level playing field. Lets not hurry with electric cars as long as we cannot generate enough green power.

      • daryan12 says:

        So the price difference between fossil fuels and nuclear is something like 0.05-0.1 kWh and you think a tax of 0.02 is going to make a huge difference? Really? And anyways they’ll just buy renewable which is cheaper. You claim that when you add in the battery cost its more expensive well A) Who said anything about using batteries (the most expensive form of energy storage) we’ve already got biomass, hydro and PHS. And B) the energy traders don’t pay the cost of storage, that’s someone else problem. The have a choice between buying nuclear and paying through the nose, buying renewables (if available) or paying the tax you mentioned and fossil fuels, they buy the latter two. And if the tax goes higher, they’d just switch to CCS with fossil fuels. And C) nuclear also needs storage, we’re adding PHS in the UK right now to cope with Hinkley C.

        As things stand nuclear is just not competitive, simple as that, a few little tweaks or whinging about storage ain’t going to magically change things. Only a fundamental change in how grids are financed (like I said subsidising installed kW’s available rather than kWh’s generated) is going to change that.

  2. Paul Baars says:

    In the US the costs of natural gas is 0,02/kWh and nuclear $0,04/kWh. So yes, a difference of $0,02 will make a difference. If it does not work simply increase the amount.

    The use of biomass is just fooling yourself. Burning trees, felled in and transported from Canada, then burning those over here. /sarcasm on/ Really smart./sarcasm off/

    Hydro and PHS is available in the UK but not in many countries (i.e. my country, NL).

    CCS is -according to research in our country- not viable too.

    >>Only a fundamental change …subsidising installed kW’s available rather than kWh’s generated
    What do you mean? You want to subsidise solar for the total installed power, while it is available for only a small percentage of the time? The same for wind?
    This sounds like the worst idea ever.

    • daryan12 says:

      0.05 per kWh for nuclear in cloud cuckoo land maybe! Last I checked it was over twice that. In fairness you are kind of bias against alternatives to nuclear. If they are so bad then explain to me why all (batteries, PHS, hydro, biomass, etc.) of them are being build in large quantities, without any subsidy, while nuclear is struggling to survive with subsidies?

      There are plenty of energy storage options for NL and in any event, its not like you are north Korea. You are aware of these things called “power lines” which allow the country to import power for your neighbours like….oh I don’t know Norway! or the UK. And remind me, how much Uranium ore does Holland produce annually? Would none be the right answer? To paraphrase yourself digging uranium out of the ground in Africa, leaving a massive mess for a poor country to deal with and “burning” it in european nuke plans /sarcasm on/ Really smart./sarcasm off/.

      You’re holding renewables up to meet a standard that nuclear can’t even pass. And again, nuclear needs storage too! The whole storage thing, while important topic that needs addressed, its a bit of a red herring in any nuclear v’s renewable debate.

      You’ve missed the point of the article, that the sort of brexiter like “magical thinking” of the nuclear lobby that everything’s ok and anyone who says differently is “fake news” is a losing strategy. Its what’s got nuclear to the position it is now, where it looks increasingly beyond rescue. Take the idea I was just floating, that a subsidy is paid out per low carbon available kW’s. So a wind farm that’s only on 33% of the time only gets paid out 1/3 of the subsidy (or maybe less if it can’t guarantee availability in peak hours), while a nuclear plant would presumably gets 90% of it, a PHS (or energy storage system) gets a double helping (as its adding and removing power from the grid). Think it sounds like a good idea….

      …well forget it! Its based on a scheme to keep old fossil fuel plants online here in the UK for winter load purposes (my idea was turn it over only to low carbon sources or energy storage). A court’s just ruled (yesterday literally!) its illegal (which in some respects is probably a good thing, people were starting to take liberties with it). But anyway, think we can scratch that idea. This is the problem, every time I try to think of a way to make nuclear work, I’m forced to realise either A) Its just not practical, B) Something else can do the same for less money, or C) the public or the politicians won’t allow it (e.g. just funding nuclear plants out of the government budget, not really an option).

      • Paul Baars says:

        Renewables are used often not because it works well, but because it feels good. Also it provides a lot of work and this is good for the economy. In the US you see most plans to subsidiate nuclear also have an incentive for more wind/solar for this reason.

        In our country we use to say: windmills run on subsidies, not on wind. This is still true. The last windmill array in the North sea is built without subsidies. But NL pays for the power connection however, so it is still subsidised.

        The best (or actually, worst) example is Germany. Lots of wind and solar, but also building 5 new coal power plants. They are even digging more lignite quarries. If CO2 taxation would be used the country is the largest tax contributer of Europe. Thats is why they stall CO2 tax.
        The renewable power is not really important, but the jobs are.

        People like to fool themselves, or do not think long and well enough about renewables, or are simply not bright enough. Or they simply do not care. I used to be anti-nuclear, but after studying power stations for over 10 years I concluded that it was the only viable option to fight climate change. Now even the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees, so I am in good company 🙂

      • daryan12 says:

        Renewables are used because they “feel good”. LOL You think hard nosed capitalists running these firms (and I know a few in the industry), or the banks financing them, are doing it because it makes them feel warm and good inside. LOL! No they are doing it because money talks. While they’d like a subsidy yes, that more to keep the bank manager happy. Actually freed of subsidies gives them more scope to do what they want. They only thing that “feels good” about for a renewables CEO is the leather seats in his Tesla.

        Okay, so you want to get rid of everything that receives subsidies? So no more nuclear then, nor fossil fuels, as both receive subsidies (have have historically received way more than renewables). You are requiring renewables to meet a standard that you won’t apply to nuclear, or anything else for that matter.

        Germany does still use coal, that is true, but they are a growing economy and their consumption of coal as part of their energy mix is falling. Not as quickly as I’d like, yes, but if they hadn’t invested in renewables they’d have doubled coal consumption, even if they’d kept nuclear. I’d agree on a carbon tax in Germany, but that’s not going to help nuclear one bit, you clearly don’t understand the politics of Germany.

        The UoCS is now pro-nuclear? I’d say they are about where they always have been (pro-facts and anti-kool aid). I did a search on their site and the first nuclear article that pops up is one of a series about nuclear safety (dated Sept 2018). The trouble is that you, like many nuke cheerleaders operate according to the rules of the playground and see people as either haters or BFF’s. So they publish one pro-nuke article and you go high-fiving and je*king each other off, when in fact nothing’s change. And next month when one of those anti-nuclear articles (or more accurately them just asking legitimate questions), makes onto the front pages, oh their haters again.

  3. Paul Baars says:

    About the costs of nuclear power, it seems to be $0.033/kWh total generating cost which includes capital, fuel and operating cost. See

    • daryan12 says:

      Sign! For crying out loud, that the cost of RUNNING the plants, it doesn’t include anything else, e.g. building the damn thing in the first place, or decommissioning. A more accurate figure is in access of £112-183/MWh (which is actually higher than I’d thought it was!).

      Click to access lazard-levelized-cost-of-energy-version-110.pdf

      But look go live in your fantasy world, ride your unicorns, drink your kool-aid, play with the other kids (such as the brexiters) and let the grown ups get on with sorting out climate change. And no doubt when the trends I highlight above continue and you can’t understand why nuclear is going out of fashion (when you were tweeted that article from nuclear news saying its too cheap to meter now), you’ll invent some fanciful conspiracy theory to explain it all.

      • Paul Baars says:

        Indeed, time will tell. In 10 years check back on nuclear and renewables and either laugh out loud or cry. As I said in the beginning, we should bet on both technologies and see whitch one works best. As it turns out we both may be right, because the mix works best. Who knows?
        At least we agree on the fact that Germany is not the example to follow concerning the fight against climate change.

      • daryan12 says:

        I don’t disagree with Germany energy policy, there’s bits of it I like and aspects of it I don’t like. In the real world of politics its rarely black and white but different shades of grey.

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