The issue of nuclear electricity is a complex one. In this post, I offer a few insights into the nuclear electric situation based on recent reports and statistical data.
Nuclear Electric Production Is Already Declining
According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, the highest year of nuclear electric production was 2006.
There are really two trends taking place, however.
1. The countries that adopted nuclear first, that is the United States, Europe, Japan, and Russia, have been experiencing flat to declining nuclear electricity production. The countries with actual declines in generation are Japan and some of the countries in Europe outside of France.
2. The countries that began adopting nuclear later, particularly the developing countries, are continuing to show growth. China and India in particular are adding nuclear production.
The long-term trend depends on how these two opposite trends balance out. There may also be new facilities built, and some “uprates” of old facilities, among existing large users of nuclear. Russia, in particular, has been mentioned as being interested in adding more nuclear.
Role of Nuclear in World Electricity
Nuclear provides a significant share of world electricity production, far more than any new alternative, making a change from nuclear to wind or solar PV difficult. If nuclear electricity use is reduced, the most likely outcome would seem to be a reduction in overall electricity supply or an increase in fossil fuel usage.
Nuclear is the largest source of world electricity after fossil fuels and hydroelectric, comprising about 12% of total world electricity. Wind amounts to about 2% of world electric supply, and solar (which is not visible on Figure 2) amounts to one-quarter of one percent (0.25%). “Other renewable” includes electricity from a variety of sources, including geothermal and wood burned to produce electricity. Limits on wood supply and geographical limits on “hot” geothermal limit how far these can be scaled up. With respect to wood and other biological products, there is also concern that we are reaching a tipping point with respect to man’s interference with ecosystems. See Approaching a State Shift in the Earth’s Bioshpere, coauthored by 20 internationally known scientists and recently published in Nature.
Note that even with the growth of renewables, there is still very substantial growth in fossil fuel use in recent years. If nuclear electricity use is reduced, fossil fuel use may grow by even a greater amount.
Role of Nuclear in Countries that Use Nuclear
The world situation shown in Figure 1 includes many countries that do not use nuclear at all, so the countries that do use nuclear tend to generate more than 12% of their electricity from nuclear. This means that if a decision is made to move away from nuclear, an even larger share of electricity must be replaced (or “be done without”).
For example, in the United States (Figure 3), nuclear now amounts to about 19% of US electricity production, and is second only to fossil fuels as an electricity source. US nuclear production tends to be concentrated in the Eastern part of the US, so that nuclear amounts to 30% to 35% of electric production along the US East Coast. This would be very difficult to replace by generation from another source, other than possibly fossil fuels. Some argue that with sufficient investment, solar PV and wind energy, together with long distance transmission lines and battery backup could be a replacement, but this has yet to be proven to be possible in practice. Germany, discussed below, is really the first test case for this. In some views, this is not working well.
For countries that are planning to reduce their nuclear generation, nuclear electricity as a percentage of total electric production in 2010 are as follows:
- Germany, 22%;
- Switzerland, 37%;
- Belgium, 52%; and
- Japan 25%.
Unless these countries can count on imports from elsewhere, it will be difficult to make up the entire amount of electricity lost through demand reduction, or through a shift to renewables.
Nuclear Electric Plants that are “Paid for” Generate Electricity Very Cheaply
Nuclear power plants for which the capital costs are already “sunk” are very inexpensive to operate, with operating costs estimated at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Any kind of change away from nuclear is likely to require the substitution of more expensive generation of some other type.
The electrical rates in place today in Europe and the United States today take into account the favorable cost structure for nuclear, and thus help keep electrical rates low, especially for commercial users (since they usually get the best rates).
If new generation is added to substitute for the paid off nuclear, it almost certainly will raise electricity rates. These higher rates will be considered by businesses in their decisions regarding where to locate new facilities, and perhaps result in more of a shift in manufacturing to developing nations.
Germany’s Experience in Leaving Nuclear
It is too early to know exactly what Germany’s experience will be in leaving nuclear, but its early experiences provide some insights.
One cost is decommissioning. According to Reuters, German nuclear companies have made a total of $30 billion euros ($36.7 billion) in provision for costs related to the cost of dismantling the plants and disposing of radioactive materials. According to the same article, Greenpeace expects the cost may exceed 44 billion euros ($53.8 billion). If the amount of installed nuclear capacity in Germany is 20.48 million kilowatts (kW), the direct cost of dismantling the nuclear reactors and handling the spent fuel ranges from $1,792 to $2,627 per kW. This cost is greater than the Chinese and Indian cost of building a comparable amount of new reactor capacity (discussed later in this article).
David Buchanan of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies did an analysis of some of the issues Germany is facing in making the change. Germany was in an unusually favorable situation because it had a cushion of spare capacity when it decided to close its reactors. When Germany closed its oldest eight reactors, one issue it discovered was lack of transmission capacity to transfer wind energy from the North to areas in the South and Southwest of Germany, where the closed reactors were located. In addition, the system needs additional balancing capability, either through more natural gas generation (because gas generators can ramp up and down quickly), or more electric storage, or both.
In Germany, natural gas is an expensive imported source of energy. The economics of the situation are not such that private companies are willing to build natural gas generation facilities, because the economics don’t work: (a) renewables get first priority in electricity purchases and (b) electricity from locally produced coal also gets priority over electricity from gas, because it is cheaper. If new gas generation is to be built, it appears that these plants may need to be subsidized as well.
Increased efficiency and demand response programs are also expected to play a role in balancing demand with supply.
Not All Countries Have the Same High Nuclear Electricity Costs
We don’t really know the cost of new nuclear electricity plants in the United States, because it has been so long since a new plants were built. The new reactors which are now under construction in the state of Georgia will provide a total of 2,200 MW of generation capacity at a cost estimated at $14.9 billion, which means an average cost of $6,773/kW.
In China and India, costs are lower, and may drop even lower in the future, as the Chinese apply their techniques and low-cost labor to bring costs down. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) in its section on China makes the statement,
Standard construction time is 52 months, and the claimed unit cost is under CNY 10,000 (US$ 1500) per kilowatt (kW), though other estimates put it at about $2000/kW.
In the section on nuclear power for India, the WNA quotes construction costs ranging from $1,200/kW to $1,700/kW, using its own technology.
If we compare the cost of US planned plants in Georgia to the Chinese and Indian plants, the cost seems to be three or four times as high.
These cost differences also appear in comparisons on a “Levelized Cost” basis. The EIA in its 2012 Annual Energy Outlook quotes an US expected levelized cost of nuclear of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), anticipated for facilities being constructed now. The section on the Economics of Nuclear Power of the WNA quotes levelized costs in the 3 to 5 cents per kWh range for China, depending on the interest rate assumed. A cost in the 3 to 5 cents range is very good, competitive with coal and with natural gas, when they are inexpensive, as they are now in the United States.
Some of China’s nuclear reactors were purchased from the United States, and thus will be higher in cost because of the purchased components. But knowing that China has a reputation for “reverse engineering” products it buys, and figuring out how to make cheap imitations, I expect that it will be able to figure out ways to create low-cost reactors in the near future, whether or not it can do so today. So the expectation is that China and India will be able to make cheap reactors (probably without all the safety devices that some other countries currently require) for itself, and quite likely, eventually for sale to others. Sales of such reactors may eventually undercut sales by American and French companies.
Interest in Purchasing Reactors
The interest in purchasing electricity generation of all kinds is likely to be greater in developing countries where the economy is growing and the need for electricity generation is growing, than in the stagnant economies of the United States, Europe, and Japan. If we look at a graph of electricity production of Asia-Pacific excluding Japan, we see a very rapid growth in electricity use.
The Middle East (Figure 5, below) is another area with an interest in nuclear. It too has shown rapid growth in electricity use, and a historical base of mostly fossil use for electricity generation.
Use of Thorium Instead of Uranium Would Seem to be a Better Choice, if It Can be Made to Work
I have not tried to research this subject, except to note that research in this area is currently being done that may eventually lead to its use.
Uranium Production is a Problem
World uranium production fell a bit in 2011, relative to 2010, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Production from Kazakhstan is becoming an increasingly large share of the total. Production in both the US and Canada declined in 2011. Spot prices have tended to stay low, in spite of the fact that an agreement that allowed the US to buy recycled Russian bomb material reaches an end in 2013. There are no doubt some stockpiles, but the WNA estimates 2011 production to equal to only 85% of current demand (including military demand).
A person would think that prices would rise higher, to incentivize increased production, but this doesn’t seem to be happening yet, at least. The uranium consulting firm Ux Consulting offers the following comment on its website:
The market that we now find ourselves in is like no other in the history of uranium. Production is far below requirements, which are growing. HEU [highly enriched uranium] supplies and the enrichment of tails material make up a large portion of supply, but the fate of these supply sources is uncertain. Supply has become more concentrated, making the market more vulnerable to disruptions if there are any problems with a particular supply source. Another source of market vulnerability is the relatively low level of inventory held by buyers and sellers alike.
The consulting firm ends the section with a pitch for its $5,000 report on the situation.
A person would like to think that additional production will be ramped up quickly, or that the US military would find some inventory. Markets don’t always work well at incentivizing a need for future production, especially when more or less adequate current supplies are available when Russian recycled bomb material is included. The discontinuity comes when those extra supplies disappear.
Nuclear can’t be replaced except by fossil fuels? I don’t agree at all. With the adequate policies, Spain passed from less than 5% to more than 16% electricity produced for wind in just 10 years (Until policies changed due to pressures made by gas industry). The reality is that if you want to do it, you can do it. France for example, produces more than 77% of electricity from nuclear plants. They could achieve that because they implemented adequate policies. Now, as their plants become old, and must be closed, they are going to be replaced. The question is: What will they choose to replace those plants? Due to financial costs and financial crisis, new nuclear plants seem not an option, while wind and sun are becoming more attractive. Nuclear power will probably have a slow decline worldwide, but it will probably be a very fast one in west Europe.
It will be interesting to see what the bankrupt Euro-zone turns to for power, but anyone who thinks they can chase the wind for a “green economy” is seriously kidding themselves. The technology just isn’t there.
I don’t believe the French govt has the slightest desire to turn away from nukes, they have served them so well for so long. They even have storage worked out.
One more thought on nuclear, and how climate change likely will prevent current plants from generating peak power just when it’s most needed for cooling urban residents. Wherever surface water is utilized for operations cooling, quantity and temperature become problematic during periods of drought.
Like coal-fired power plants, nuclear facilities use large amounts of water for cooling purposes. After water has cycled through the plant, it is discharged back into a nearby waterway, usually a lake or a river, at a higher temperature. State regulations prohibit nuclear plants from operating once water temperatures go above a certain threshold, in part because it could compromise the safe operation of the facility, and also because discharging very warm water can kill fish and other marine life.
According to the New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald, the Braidwood Generating Station, located about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, was recently granted a waiver to continue operating despite the fact that the unusually hot and dry summer had heated the water it was taking in to a toasty 102°F — 2 degrees above the legal operating limit for the plant.
Climate Central’s Alyson Kenward reported on the threat that climate change poses to electricity generation in 2011, when she detailed problems that a 2010 heat wave caused for operators of the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.
“With river water so warm, the nuclear plant couldn’t draw in as much water as usual to cool the facility’s three reactors, or else the water it pumped back into the river could be hot enough to harm the local ecosystem, says Golden. But for every day that the Browns Ferry plant ran at 50 percent of its maximum output, the TVA had to spend $1 million more than usual to purchase power from somewhere else, he says.
What happened in northern Alabama last summer, at the largest of TVA’s nuclear power plants, did not present a human safety concern. Operators knew there was never a risk of an explosion or nuclear meltdown, nor was there a threat of leaking radioactive material. But the prolonged spell of hot weather put the TVA at risk of violating environmental permits, with hefty fines as one consequence and potential harm to the Tennessee River ecosystem as another.
It’s not the first time high temperatures have affected the performance of the Browns Ferry plant, and extreme heat is a growing concern for power plant operators across the Southeast.”
That’s why people build nuclear power on the coasts
So that tsunamis can hit them!
Let’s face it. There are few (if any) ideal sites or for nuclear power stations. They need lots of water for cooling but need to be away from tsunami prone coasts. Virtually all coasts are theoretically tsunami prone. They need to be away from fault lines and earthquake prone areas. They need to be sited in politically stable countries. They need to be relatively far away from major population, agricultural and other resource areas (to allow minimum exclusion zones). Yet they need to be relatively close for power transmission purposes. The list goes on.
Public boosters and fanatic advocates of nuclear power are amongst the least scientifically literate bloggers I have come across. This is leaving aside the tiny core of industry centred boosters who have a clear self interest in promoting nuclear power.
If ‘nuclear power stations’ is replaced with ‘LFNR stations,’ then every single one of your objections goes by the wayside.What we need is a Manhattan project to bring them on stream. What we don’t need is horizon to horizon wind turbines in the hope that the wind might blow when we need it too, or vast areas of solar panels in the hope that the sun might shine, never mind that temperate zones experience long periods of neither wind nor sun. On top of that we don’t want the countryside further despoiled by mile upon mile of power lines desperately chasing where the sun or the wind might, just might, be present in sufficient strength.
We live in a scientific and technological age, lets take the best it has to offer in order to keep the lights on while keeping the temperatures down and the seas less acidic.
By definition and by empirical fact, all non-renewable energy sources will run out. By “run out”, I mean substantially run out even if small pockets and dribs and drabs continue to be found and used from time to time. These dribs and drabs will never run a global civilization of 7 billion people or more. This means coal, oil, natural gas, and all fission fuels on earth will substantially run out. Fusion may be a special case but we will leave that aside for the moment.
When coal, oil, natural gas, and all fission fuels run out what is left apart from the long shot of fusion power? All that is left is renewable energy sources, the key ones being solar, wind and perhaps some biofuels. Wind and biolfuels are a subset of solar power in any case. Wind is driven by weather systems which are driven by incoming solar heat energy. Biofuels are prodcued by photosynthesis using sunlight as the energy source. So in effect, solar is it.
It is fruitless and pointless to say “solar” isn’t good enough. In the end, it will be all we have. Thus, the ONLY realistic questions are how good will solar be and how much of a global civilization if any can we sustain with it?
Fusion power may be a way out of this but I doubt it for several reasons. Scientists themselves are renowned for saying “fusion is always thrity years in the future”. Essentially, the technical engineering problems of harnessing fusion power may be technically and inherently unsolvable.
With all due respect to Gail and most of her bloggers, I think the general tenor of this site discounts the potential scale of solar power much too readily. It may well be eminently possible to power a world economy with solar power alone. The raw numbers indicate that enough solar energy to power the whole world impacts on a fraction of the world’s major desert areas. Solar convection towers and/or solar concentrating arrays could produce the electricty and the liquid (methane) fuels required by the world. Methane can be made from atmospheric CO2 and seawater using solar generated electrical and heat energy along with catalytic reactions.
Many of the materials required to build this solar generating infrastructure are ubiquitous as in silica and materials for cement. And if we didn’t waste enormous amounts of steel, aluminium and other metals on the world’s unnecessary fleets of private cars (instead using public transport systems) then adequate metals for the infrastcutures would be available.
Get real. The human species is in danger from climate change and it is obviously not going to tackle it while the world’s leading nation, which is also one of the top CO2 emitters, is intent on not even admitting that climate change even exists, or if it does, that it is not a problem – “only an engineering problem” in the words of one oil industry CEO; when it is obvious that a considerable number of scientists have been ‘bought’ by the fossil fuel industry with its priority of serving its shareholders in preference to its country.
Money is the only god these people worship, despite the fact that many of them are in the ‘happy clappy’ movement. It is obvious that because the sun doesn’t shine on tap and nor does the wind blow on demand, they are never going to meet the needs of industry and are thus a threat to the dollar that they worship. In short, wind and solar are never going to be a solution to the climate change problem, even they were practicable, of which many scientists are extremely doubtful.
While some form of storage to cope with the lean wind and solar times might well be developed, it is not by any means guaranteed. It is not even decided what form it might take, let alone just how much such storage is necessary and how much it might destroy the local environment to house it (think hydraulic storage in the form of potential energy). So the result is a countryside despoiled by expensive power lines chasing wherever the sun or wind happen to be, if they exist, that is, or if they don’t, wherever the necessary storage happens to be so that we can keep the lights on. A countryside that was already despoiled by wind turbines blotting the landscape and possibly massive acreages taken up by solar arrays, which would be better used for food production, given the projected population figures.
Thorium is sufficiently plentiful that it will ‘never’ run out (think many thousands of years, by which time other solutions (or needs, with all that that implies) may well emerge. At present its presence is a nuisance in many mining operations.
The main problem with the green movement is that it can only see absolutes. Like it or not, cars are a fundamental part of life today, their development was a milestone on human progress and will of necessity continue to form a central part of human society If we go back from that, we will be on a very slippery slope to a world that will barely support on billion, let alone the nine or ten projected. It is not even sensible to think only in terms of public transport, unless the whole human population is going to live in towns and no one live in the countryside, but of course, that would mean progress in automated food production, which, even if possible, would, by definition, mean progress and as the idea that cars are a “waste” of money clearly shows, progress is not something the greens believe in, unless it is in the form of ever bigger wind turbines, of course.
We need to fight climate change. Thanks to the efforts of the fossil fuel industry the need is urgent with many obstacles still to overcome, the main one of which is to offer those opposed to the notion of fighting climate change some security that their beloved industry can continue unabated and their stocks climb ever upwards. No matter how wedded one is to renewable technologies, wind and solar will never provide that security because they are both subject to periods of non-availability and no one can guarantee how long those periods will be.
We have a battle on our hands. Just look at the discussions regarding the current financial situation in the world and note how many times climate change is even considered. The projections are that the earth is going to warm by between 4 and 6 C. Four degrees will be dire and six does not bear thinking about. Mother Nature has given us a sample this summer of how things might be. Perhaps, when the public catches on to how much they have been conned by the fossil fuel industry (when they join the dots) and see just what it means to them, they might accept wind and solar. But even then, LFTR reactors will still come out on top because of their reliability and because it is possible to hide a small modular LFTR reactor on a small industrial estate, leaving the countryside unspoiled. Pity the same cannot be said for the massive and very ugly wind turbines incongruously peppering what was once our beautiful countryside. But I suppose the greens can’t see them because they are so short-sighted.
I would be a lot more optimistic about solar if we could make and transport new solar energy with previously made solar energy. I don’t see that we will ever be able to. As a starter, please show me a plant that makes solar panels using only solar panels for their energy supply.
Sorry, forgot to supply link to full article:
Assuming that storage issues can be solved, I’d appreciate a robust discussion of the claim by Gail that renewables, including solar and wind, can not be scaled up sufficiently to replace nulcear, given the news this year out of Germany:
Germany sets new solar power record, institute says
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN | Sat May 26, 2012 2:02pm EDT
(Reuters) – German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour – equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity – through the midday hours on Friday and Saturday, the head of a renewable energy think tank said.
The German government decided to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, closing eight plants immediately and shutting down the remaining nine by 2022.
They will be replaced by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and bio-mass.
Norbert Allnoch, director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry (IWR) in Muenster, said the 22 gigawatts of solar power per hour fed into the national grid on Saturday met nearly 50 percent of the nation’s midday electricity needs.
“Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity,” Allnoch told Reuters. “Germany came close to the 20 gigawatt (GW) mark a few times in recent weeks. But this was the first time we made it over.”
The record-breaking amount of solar power shows one of the world’s leading industrial nations was able to meet a third of its electricity needs on a work day, Friday, and nearly half on Saturday when factories and offices were closed.
Yeah, we get a few hot days too, here in Poland, which is next door, so to speak. I certainly would not like to rely on photovoltaic for any situation where consistency of supply mattered.
Sure, a few sunny days.
The question is how many terraWattHours they produce over the year from wind and solar, and compare that to coal and nukes.
The Germans include hydro in the renewable mix, but hydro in Germany has nowhere to grow.
Any plan that says “we will take this energy supplier and increase it by a factor of 10 over the next 10 years” is to be taken with a grain of salt.
“Assuming that storage issues can be solved,” … well that is the whole ball of wax, really. If grid power storage can be solved, it will do a lot more than just improve renewables, it will upend the way grids work throughout the world. It will turn nuclear and coal power plants from baseload power to peaker power – a huge improvement. It will encourage grid operators to build combined cycle gas generators instead of peaker generators – with a huge improvement in efficiency. Everything in the industrial world gets turned on it’s ear if a cheap and efficient way to store electricity is invented…. which is why few people are optimistic it will happen. People have been chasing this grail for a very long time.
Yep. average insolation in the UK varies from less than 150W a sq meter in December to over 1.5Kw on a clear sunny day. Peak electricity demand is around 6pm in winter when solar is producing nothing at all. In summer in Germany up to 30GW – that’s pretty much the size of the entire UK grid- has to be kept on hot standby waiting for sunset, burning fuel. Then its like 20 nuclear plants all shut down together. A nightmare. Storage? What storage? As you rightly say, if we had storage we could slash fuel burn 30% or more just by using it to cope with peak demands..
We have definite proof (France) that nuclear power works At a sane cost. We have definite proof (Germany) that massive investment in renewable energy does nothing to reduce carbon burn, and simply triples electricity prices instead.
But selective reporting makes this an apparent ‘success’.
French nuclear reactors have had to shut or reduce output due to lack of sufficient cooling water at times. And we should consider Government financial support in a variety of forms (research laboratories, insurance, planning, security, financial guarantees, etc)
Germany and Spain threw their support behind solar, and without that, penetration into the energy mix would be far lower. Whenever they talk of reducing subsidies, the PV industry cries that it will be ruined.
The fossil fuel industry gets its subsidies too, and even with all these subsides households are having trouble paying their electricity bills. Industry always lobbies for itself, of course, and usually pays far less for its KW.hs than households.
This makes spotting Peak Energy more difficult.
From a website recommended by a CERN researcher, another article on thorium nuclear: http://www.stormsmith.nl/i35.html. Excerpt:
The feasibility of the thorium breeding cycle is even more remote than that of the U-Pu breeder. This is caused by specific features of the thorium cycle on top of fundamental limitations. The realisation of the thorium-uranium cycle would require the availability of 100% perfect materials and 100% complete separation processes. None of these two prerequisites are possible, as follows from the Second Law of thermodynamics [more i42, i43]. It can be argued beforehand that the Th-U breeder cycle will not work as envisioned. In addition it would be questionable if the energy balance of any thorium fuelled nuclear power system could be positive.
So, how come they had a thorium reactor working over a considerable period of time back in the fiftys?
They didn’t. The breeder jacket wasn’t part of the design, in order to allow them to monitor the reactor core.
A negative energy balance is definitely a deal-killer.
Some few corrections: Anything done by the Chinese state, as opposed to private companies, is actually pretty safe. On a passenger-kilometer basis, their railroad system is THE safest in the world, not “one of the”, just “the”, and its actually SHOCKING how much better they do it.
In terms of grid losses, they’re on par with Singapore at 5%, better than the 7% of the NA grid and far superior to the 30% of India. The accusation of lowering safety in something as obviously dangerous as a reactor is just pure racism.
Fascinating. Also not terribly surprising.
The Chineese apparently have lots of shale and they are now driving whole hog behind fracking it for gas and NGLs. That would be pretty mind boggling if they pulled this off – can you imagine Bejing with clean air and Las Vegas lights?
This is a good report. But you can’t forget that for the last 24 months cheap natural gas has been destroying the market for additional nuclear in the US, and this will probably go on for another 5 years at least.
As the so-called developed countries lose their steelmaking capacity, they pick up electric capacity as a freebie, since in Europe AND the USA at least, these are largely electric arc furnaces running on scrap, as opposed to the natural gas and iron ore consuming types. Has anyone come across any research that shows this is considered by the planners. I would be interested in reading the report(s). It would be pretty clever to deliberately force your steel industry overseas to avoid building power plants on your home turf or to shut your nuclear plants if that was your agenda. Thank-you.
INdustry trends to go where costs are cheapest. Costs for new steel are very cheap in China because of cheap labor and cheap fuel (coal). There is the cost of transport, though, so that brings the cost up somewhat for overseas customers.
Getting steel from scrap metal uses much less energy, and I think it also uses much less labor. So its costs tend to be low, regardless of energy or labor costs–but China doesn’t have much recycled steel yet.
So I think we did what we could be competitive at.
We make choices such as this on a lot of things–sending our heavy industry and jobs overseas. This is why our electricity consumption is comparatively flat (Figure 3) relative to Asia-Pacific’s (Figure 4). It is also why we have a high unemployment rate.
Last night I was wondering how to find out how the oft-mentioned ‘fragile and decaying’ grid is doing, and found myself reading this report: http://www.nerc.com/files/2012SRA.pdf
which seemed to indicate most of the US and Canada was doing OK, for now. It indicated nuclear provided 14% of the summer peak generating capacity in New England. A quick review of the other regions seemed to show your 30-35% figure for the East is overstated. Of course it’s always hard to compare different reporting systems.
Peak generating capacity is a lot different than actual electrical power. If someone wants to pull the wool over your eyes, they talk about generating capacity, because it distorts the mix so greatly. Nuclear operates at about 90% of capacity; natural gas and wind operate at very much lower capacities, often near 20%, sometimes 30%, so the capacity comparison is very skewed toward what regulators want to emphasize–wind and natural gas–not what they are actually using.
I remember reading the 30% to 35% range a while back, but didn’t have the source available, so I sat down and calculated percentages of electricity generated for Eastern states using data from the EIA website for the latest year available, 2010. This is what I found:
New Hampshire: 49%
New Jersey: 50%
New York: 31%
North Carolina: 32%
South Carolina: 50%
The total for that group of states is 35%, so I thought a range of 30% to 35% sounded reasonable.
I notice that the Wikipedia article regarding Indian Point Energy Center (which there is debate about whether it will be closed) says, “The plant generates over 2,000 megawatts of electrical power, comprising as much as 30 percent of the electricity used in New York City and Westchester County.” I don’t know where the rest of New York city’s power comes from–it may include some power from other nuclear power plants elsewhere.
If you want to see what is really happening in ONE country,. you might enjoy my site
Most people are surprised by the facts.
Also be aware that at least 80% of the very large amount of imported electricity into the UK is nuclear in origin, from France.
(Nuclear power is Frances 3rd largest export)
If France can generate 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, and export masses of it, it rather refutes certain posters who claim that large scale nuclear to replace fossil is impossible. Not only is it possible, France has actually done it.
No country that has invested in renewable energy has ever managed to switch off a single fossil plant as a result.
100% nuclear is also possible, but is not economic at current gas prices. Its far cheaper to keep some gas to cover the peak demands.
What is apparent however is that ‘facts’ about nuclear power vary depending on where you ‘find’ them The NY Times and the Guardian in the UK are particularly selective in their scaremongering approach and utter emotional bias against it.
Wikipedia is variable from clear anti-nuclear lobby written material to fairly balanced and neutral.
As with all things where large sums of money and politics are involved, it pays to check several sources and cross reference them to separate deliberate spin from actual factual material. The ability to do simple sums also is immensely useful.
ONe of the ironies that was pointed out in the Oxford Institute study about German energy was that by cutting off their own nuclear, they would go from being an energy exporter to an energy importer. In doing so, the most likely electricity they would import is nuclear.
California does something similar. It is a state that won’t allow coal plants, but imports coal-generated electricity from outside the state.
so does the .02/kWh include the decommissioning costs… and if not how can you accurately convey the 2cents/kWh number?
“One cost is decommissioning. According to Reuters, German nuclear companies have made a total of $30 billion euros ($36.7 billion) in provision for costs related to the cost of dismantling the plants and disposing of radioactive materials. According to the same article, Greenpeace expects the cost may exceed 44 billion euros ($53.8 billion). If the amount of installed nuclear capacity in Germany is 20.48 million kilowatts (kW), the direct cost of dismantling the nuclear reactors and handling the spent fuel ranges from $1,792 to $2,627 per kW. This cost is greater than the Chinese and Indian cost of building a comparable amount of new reactor capacity (discussed later in this article).”
Decommissioning costs are generally taken out of the revenue generated by the plants. In most countries this is about 1% of the costs. For information on some European examples of funds please follow the link. http://www.wupperinst.org/uploads/tx_wiprojekt/EUDecommFunds_FR.pdf
One should note that the current estimate of the fund size in Germany is 23-35 B Euro. Other issue – naturally if the life of the plants are extended 20-40 years, then the net present value (NPV) calculations begin to look really good and the decommissioning amounts become “peanuts.”
All of this assumes that there will be some kind of long term solution for nuclear waste. As the DC Circuit stated “temporary storage of spent fuel at the site of the nuclear power plant for 40 years starts to look like a permanent solution.” (I paraphrase)
Putting aside funds might work if bonds are yielding something reasonable, and if defaults aren’t a problem. It is likely to be a problem in an era of very low interest rates and many defaults. If you need oil to do the decommissioning, and it isn’t available, that could be a problem as well.
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It is very easy to make selected observations on nuclear power (as one or two of your readers demonstrate in-spades – incidentally Sellafield in the UK still has some waste problems http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/03/drone-probe-sellafield-silos-hexacopter), so thank you very much Gail for your careful telling of the nuclear story as it continues very differently in the different regions of the world.
Your points on sunk costs and low cost electricity are particularly explanatory. (Old nuclear power plants are coaxed along for a very long time!) At any one moment in a given mix though, wind-generated electricity will always be accepted ‘on the grid’ to meet a rise or a peak in demand, in preference to power from other sources, because the marginal cost of any extra electricity is effectively zero. This presents a problem for NG gas-fired generation which must pay for its extra fuel, even though the NG power plant is so much cheaper to build in the first place compared with either wind or nuclear, and its interest payments on capital are so much lower. (The UK, while keeping its sizeable residual nuclear generation, two decades ago changed rapidly over to NG generation in place of coal, using in those days UK low-cost NG. Scotland is different and is declared as going for renewable power, but in England & Wales government is now struggling to find consortia willing to build nuclear replacements ‘at a price’! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_the_United_Kingdom )
NG generation as you remark is able to ramp up and down rapidly according to demand and to easily follow the very large daily variation in demand for electricity as well as ‘balance’ more rapid fluctuations. Nuclear has the opposite characteristic. Because of that, as I understand the engineering arguments, nuclear cannot ‘follow’ the inevitable rise and fall in wind supply, nor even on its own match the regular fluctuation in daily electricity demand. It needs more flexible partners such as NG or hydro. (Coal is I believe somewhat more flexible but is more similar to nuclear.) In short, nuclear is a very poor partner for wind, and wind needs a large and flexible NG component in the supply mix, or an imported supply from a distant source. The engineering and cost calculations become very complex and are not easily resolved even with the astonishing possible continent-wide use of UHVDC cables capable of transferring 10s of GW over thousands of kilometres when one source of supply dips and requires to be matched by another. And Europe lags behind China in this ‘super-highway’ regard. (See the abb website for an example of the astonishing distribution system being constructed in China http://www.abb.com/industries/ap/db0003db004333/545527721af2bf14c12578690049fea4.aspx and a comprehensive review here http://eepublishers.co.za/images/upload/energize_2012/07_TT_02_A%20review-of-HVDC.pdf )
THanks for your comments and the links! I had heard that China had had a very bad problem with long distance transmission, but didn’t realize how far they are along on the link.
I suppose the transmission cable needs to be sized for the maximum load, so will operate at less than “half full” most of the time.
Well, nobody touts the problems, but there are examples of long-distance bulk electricity transmission that have been successful for decades in various parts of the world. The Inga hydro scheme link to Katanga in the Congo dates from the 1970s. Given the pell mell expansion of the cables in China they seem confident of mastery of the technology. The links from hydro should provide very precise control to match demand and ‘balance’ the connected AC grids. I am still astonished by the map in the pdf link I provided.
Here is a link to a discussion on Chris Martenson’s website on thorium.
I meant to post the thorium link on the thread above this one. Whoops!
The concept that Nukes can make any impact whatsoever of the declining production of Fossil Fuels is Pollyana thinking in the EXTREMIS.
First off, you have a SLEW of plants all at the end of their working lifespan which need to be decommissioned, and the waste they produce sequestered…somewhere. This will cost a fortune, and there is no ROI for the investment in cleaning up the mess on a monetary level, it is money down the toilet for whoever spends it. The ROI is in having a cleaner and healthier environment in the future, but this makes no money for the Energy companies who have the cost of the cleanup, unless it is shifted onto the Taxpayer Dime.
Second, the problem is onlty partially at the Power Generation end for Electricity, the BIGGER problem is actually in the Grid and Transmission Network, which is aging, decrepit and quite fragile through most networks now. Again, you have tremendous infrastructure costs in upgrading these networks, and that is just to service CURRENT customers, not to build out further. It also has no ROI to invest in this. The ORIGINAL Grid never paid for itself, the debt was just Rolled Over for the last Century. As Steve from Virginia often points out, none of this stuff ever pays for itself, it is always negative as a resource waste and depletion.
Third, although the Electric Grid is a deep source problem as far as Energy Conduits for Industrial Culture go, even if you could ramp up Electirc Porduction and Distribution through Nuke development and Transmission Network Upgrades, you STILL got the problem that ICE transportation motors simply do not WORK on Electricity. In theory, if you could produce infinite Electric Power you could use that to produce Infinite Liquid Fuels, but AGAIN, to develop and build all the plants necessary to take Sedge Grass or some other substrate and chemically alter it to say neo-pentane or some other high density liquid fuel would cost a FORTUNE, and building enough of said plants to replace lost raw crude pumping is NOT going to happen inside even a 20 year timespan.
Nukes are a complete waste of time, and even supposedly “clean” Thoriuum Reactors have all sorts of negatives. I covered this inside the Diner a while ago.
The ONLY discussion important now in the Nuke department is getting all these reactors Decommissioned and getting the spent fuel sequestered off far enough away where it won’t turn vast areas into radioctive Dead Zones. If/When the Grid Collapses, in fairly short order the Spent Fuel Ponds by these plants will all be Fuk-U-Shimas. No electricity, no way to cool the ponds. We’ll be damn lucky if a few dozen don;t go Super Critical. Any Debt Money we got left to spend now needs to be directed at CLEANING UP THE NUKE POISON already created. Get that done, THEN you can talk about building some new ones if you can truly come up with “Clean Nuke”, which I seriously doubt. Don’t clean it up, we’ll all be Turning Japanese in NO TIME.
I was thinking that if thorium could be made to work, it would be better (for generating electricity, not for making vehicles go). What do you see as the big issues for thorium (other than it perhaps not working)?
In a post “Thorium is Hopium” on the Diner Forum (not the Blog) I wrote about some of the problems with Thorium overall.
The Wiki Article I cited in there covers many specific issues:
“Disadvantages as nuclear fuel
There are several challenges to the application of thorium as a nuclear fuel, particularly for solid fuel reactors:
Unlike uranium, natural thorium contains no fissile isotopes; fissile material, generally 233U, 235U, or plutonium, must be added to achieve criticality. This, along with the high sintering temperature necessary to make thorium-dioxide fuel, complicates fuel fabrication. Oak Ridge National Laboratory experimented with thorium tetrafluoride as fuel in a molten salt reactor from 1964–1969, which was far easier to both process and separate from contaminants that slow or stop the chain reaction.
In an open fuel cycle (i.e. utilizing 233U in situ), higher burnup is necessary to achieve a favorable neutron economy. Although thorium dioxide performed well at burnups of 170,000 MWd/t and 150,000 MWd/t at Fort St. Vrain Generating Station and AVR respectively, challenges complicate achieving this in light water reactors (LWR), which compose the vast majority of existing power reactors.
In a once-through thorium fuel cycle the residual 233U is long lived radioactive waste. Another challenge associated with a once-through thorium fuel cycle is the comparatively long interval over which 232Th breeds to 233U. The half-life of 233Pa is about 27 days, which is an order of magnitude longer than the half-life of 239Np. As a result, substantial 233Pa develops in thorium-based fuels. 233Pa is a significant neutron absorber, and although it eventually breeds into fissile 235U, this requires two more neutron absorptions, which degrades neutron economy and increases the likelihood of transuranic production.
Alternatively, if solid thorium is used in a closed fuel cycle in which 233U is recycled, remote handling is necessary for fuel fabrication because of the high radiation levels resulting from the decay products of 232U. This is also true of recycled thorium because of the presence of 228Th, which is part of the 232U decay sequence. Further, unlike proven uranium fuel recycling technology (e.g. PUREX), recycling technology for thorium (e.g. THOREX) is only under development.
Although the presence of 232U complicates matters, there are public documents showing that 233U has been used once in a nuclear weapon. The United States tested 233U as part of a bomb core in the MET blast during Operation Teapot in 1955, though with much lower yield than expected. Unlike plutonium however, 233U can be easily denatured by mixing it with natural or depleted uranium, requiring isotope separation before it can be used in nuclear weapons. Another option is to mix thorium fuels with small amounts of natural or depleted uranium during fabrication to ensure that 233U concentrations at cycle end are acceptably low.
Though thorium-based fuels produce far less long-lived transuranics than uranium-based fuels, some long-lived actinide products constitute a long term radiological impact, especially 231Pa.
Advocates for liquid core and molten salt reactors such as LFTR claim that these technologies negate thorium’s disadvantages present in solid fueled reactors. Since only one liquid core fluoride salt reactor has been built (the ORNL MSRE) and it was not using thorium, it is hard to validate the exact benefits. The lack of relevance to the nuclear weapon industry can be seen as a disadvantage to the development of thorium usage in power generation,[dubious – discuss] but a worldwide resurgence of nuclear power use could provide enough incentives and funding to negate this disadvantage.”
Thanks! It sounds like we are still a long way away from getting thorium to work, in an economic fashion. That may be the major problem.
A year and half ago I had a “debate” with the thorium salt promoters (pumpers) with comments on items they were ignoring and difficulties they would have with their program. The discussion is at:
For one thing, Thorium is not a fissile material, and the reactor should really be called a Uranium-233 reactor. For it to work, it needs an amount of U-233 to get going, thereafter the Th-232 will get converted to U-233. But where is the original U-233 to come from? The tests in the distant past used U-233 that was extracted from U-235 waste – not an impossible task but adding to the complexity and making scaling up more energy intensive.
I doubt if any advanced industrialized country could exist with even occasional blackouts. Countries like India have them, but many factories and other large users that require reliable service have installed their own generators long ago. I can tell you one thing as a veteran of Katrina who had no electricity for about a week after Katrina hit. Without electricity, this civilization would collapse within about a week. Virtually nothing works without it. You can’t even refine oil. About the only thing that still worked was the hot water heater that was powered by natural gas that never went off. The water stayed on. I guess they had a generator to run the pumps. Nearly all communication failed as soon as the cell towers ran out of propane. The police couldn’t even communicate. I had plenty of food and a big old 1960’s Zenith Transoceanic transistor radio, so I could listen to WWL radio to hear what was going on, so I didn’t have to flee. Amazingly, the buried AT&T telephone line never went out because the area of Slidell where I was never flooded. They must have had a Cold War nuke resistant telephone system built when there was no competition. They didn’t care what it cost to bury everything and build battery packs and generator plants before the big breakup. Night was pitch black. The moonless sky looked almost scary with thousands of stars and the Milky Way galaxy looking like it was going to fall down on your head. Unless you have been in a very remote region, you don’t realize how dark it is outside with no power or moonlight. You could hear a pin drop since nothing was moving for the first two days because all the roads were blocked by fallen trees. You would not believe how much gasoline and diesel was consumed after the storm cutting up trees and removing them to landfills. For months, thousands of machines were everywhere, and everyone going in and out of New Orleans drove at 80 miles an hour.
In cold climates failure of the grid quickly becomes life threatening. All the water pipes will freeze and break if the electricity stays off for days. Forget about doing without electricity for long. Something like the 1859 coronal mass ejection hits today and fries all the big transformers, and most of us, especially in the northern half of the country will not survive. We aren’t an agrarian society living on the farm with cows and chickens any more. And processed food in storage is far lower than 30 years ago. Everything is just in time scheduled controlled by electronic communication. There is no going back to the pre-electric age, at least not for most of us. It can’t be done.
I agree that going back to a pre-electric environment would wreck almost everything we have today, but in the long run, it is hard to see an alternative.
The history of nuclear power is filled with tragic irony–all the more now that it seems that it will go out with a whimper, rather than a bang. The thorium-powered reactor is an old idea, but those in power have pursued uranium reactors for the purposes of creating weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Had all the same time, energy, and genius been spent on research in thorium-reactor and battery technologies with the intention of mitigating the effects of future oil scarcities, we’d be in a different place, now. Probably in a place of waiting for the bees to die while watching agrobusiness deplete the soil, but a different place nonetheless.
Meanwhile, thanks to the arms race and the dangerous, dirty reactors that were necessary to maintain it for so long, the world justifiably hates nukes. Even if the BANANA effect (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) were to disappear, it will now take too long to both develop thorium reactors and convince everyone of their safety to make any difference. But I wish them all the luck in the world…
The world doesn’t hate nukes. The Greens hate nukes, but then the Greens are big on hatred of anything that actually works and provides a better life for people.
In the UK more than 50% of the population is in favour of more nuclear power. Amongst engineers and men, its even higher.
You find similar figures in nations that have not been exposed to the massive hysterical anti nuclear propaganda.
Reactors are not dirty and they are not intrinsically dangerous – no more so than anything else that does something useful. I’d certainly far rather live next to a reactor than a storage facility holding the same amount of stored energy as natural gas, for example. Or a dam.
You say we should have spent money on battery technologies. Which ones would those be then? The reason we have no batteries that do what we would like, is on account of the physics and chemistry of batteries. Lithium batteries represent the best element in the periodic table being used at up to 30% of its theoretical energy density. But even 100% wont get you a technology that will let you drive 600 miles and refill the tank in a couple of minutes.
We cannot change the physical nature of the universe. We must work with what it allows us to do. That is surprisingly little. The universe is a nuclear universe as far as we can tell. ALL the energy that was put into it in the Big Bang, is all there is in it. The biggest energy stores in the universe are its elements being what they are. Essentially ‘not iron’ – as that is the most nuclear stable element of all. Everything is is potentially transmutable to iron by atomic level reactions, with release of energy resulting. Hydrogen fuses to helium in the sun. Uranium decays inside the earth, contributing to keeping it warm. Our planet is nuclear debris from a nuclear supernova. And its still radioactive enough to be useful in that it contains fissile materials. In short we are living on a large lump of nuclear waste, whose life is driven by a huge fusion reactor 93 million miles away and whose core still contains enough reprocessable nuclear wast to be useful to us. Not using that material won’t make it any less radioactive. In fact the reverse is true. By helping Nature along the way we actually reduce the amount of radioactivity in the planet, overall.
The sea is full of radioactive materials not of our making. So is our food, the air we breathe, and everything around us.
Why not use it?
Simply because we have been brainwashed into seeing it in completely different terms. No one looks at the sun and thinks ‘bloody heck, what’s an unshielded fusion reactor doing in the sky, one that is going to give me cancer* if I lie in its rays for too long’. Nor do they on eating a banana think ‘there’s so many millirems of radiation I have just eaten. Nor on taking a breath of air think ‘ I’d better not breathe too much, I am near my daily maximum dose of Carbon-14**.’ Only when they see a nuclear power station do they actually think of ‘radiation’ at all. As if radiation was only something that got made there.
If I wanted to dream up the ultimate scary thing, it would be deadly, but slowly deadly, invisible, undetectable except with sophisticated equipment and then I’d apply that epithet to anything I really didn’t want someone else to use. I’d have a problem if it were also as common as muck and present everywhere of course, but then I’d utilise the fundamental penchant of the human brain to doublethink and separate it out into ‘natural’ and call that ‘safe’***, and ‘man made’ and call that ‘deadly’.. Even when there was no difference at all.
The disjunct between the actual facts, and politically crafted perceptions, is nowhere greater than when we talk about energy, it seems.
Thorium is a great idea of course – the generalised atomic trash left afterwards is a bit easier to deal with, but its going to take 20-30 years to get it to the level of commercial operation. India is likely to win that race.
*death rate from various skin cancers that are 90% a result of too much sun, runs about the same as road traffic accidents in the UK – about 3000 a year. The second biggest radiation linked killer is natural radon linked lung cancers. No one dies from nuclear power at all.
**overall the nuclear power industry and all the weapons tests there have ever been account for less than 1% of the total radiation we are exposed to, leaving out the suns rays..Medical usage accounts for far more. But the majority is simply there, in the environment.
*** Coal fly ash, widely used to make ‘cinder blocks’ for construction, is just radioactive enough to be classed as ‘low level waste’ and, if it emanated from the nuclear industry, would have to be put in steel containers and buried for thousands or millions of years. At least two areas of the United Kingdom are radioactive enough to render them beyond the limits of nuclear power workers. They are popular holiday destinations. They are more radioactive than the Fukushima exclusion zone and about as radioactive as the abandoned town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, is. And its radon – far more dangerous than the nuclear debris left at either of those sites, by and large. The USA has sites equally as high – Colorado is one example. Ramsar in Iran is positively so high that it would – if it were a western area that was subject to a post Chernobyl type event, be evacuated and abandoned forever. Its also a popular health spa and holiday destination.
Thanks for going to all the trouble to compose your comments. I have learned a lot from them.
“You say we should have spent money on battery technologies. Which ones would those be then? The reason we have no batteries that do what we would like, is on account of the physics and chemistry of batteries. Lithium batteries represent the best element in the periodic table being used at up to 30% of its theoretical energy density. But even 100% wont get you a technology that will let you drive 600 miles and refill the tank in a couple of minutes. ”
You generalize from a lack of facts. For instance, Envia has a battery that has a 400 Wh/kg specification. This is a 160% energy density increase over the industry standard. So, to claim that we have reached some kind of “limit” is simply wrong.
In any case, this is only one example. There are many more if you just look.
We may be speaking past each other. It’s not about whether or not a properly-functioning nuclear plant of any kind is good or bad–I’m all in favor of it. I’d move in next door to one tomorrow if the rent were low. But if Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima had all been running on thorium, nuclear power would have a far better image than it does today.
As for batteries, they only need to be superlatively wonderful in a world structured around cheap gas. I’d originally typed “research in thorium-reactor and battery technologies, and development of rail infrastructure,” but deleted the second part as unnecessary. If we’d built things differently and arrived at our current battery tech-level sooner, things would be different. I’d imagined this to be a fairly unobjectionable conclusion…
Pretty sure death rates from skin cancer is far lower than from car accidents. I believe skin cancer is around 0.5% of total deaths in the US.
check it out. Looks like driving is a lot more dangerous in the USA but cancer is the biggest killer and skin cancer is the most common form of it. about 9,000 deaths a year
Considering that the cost of energy is sure to change dramatically in the future, analysing the future financial viability of nuclear is pretty meaningless. It is the ERoEI, and in particular the energy budget over time, that needs to be looked at carefully first.
The nuclear industry decried the Storm and Smith report for over-emphasising the energy cost of decommisioning, but since there is no working example of a complete decommissioning, vague estimates are the best we can do. The key thing is the energy budget over time, see http://www.peakoil.org.au/Storm.Smith.energy.budget.gif . By the time decommissioning starts, the energy produced by the plant is long gone, as probably will be the operators who made a profit out of it. Where will the energy to decommission come from ?
I foresee a future not only with a collapsed economy, but ravished environment, sweltering under climate change, and with pools of spent fuel abandonned by their bankrupt owners.
ERoEI is so large it needn’t be considered for nuclear. And if fast breeders are used to generate new fuels, its even less.
You say there is no complete example of decommissioning: That is by and large true, (although the Connecticut Yankee plant, and one of the Sellafield early reactors in the UK have both been restored to ‘greenfield’) but this is because the cheapest way to dismantle a reactor once the fuel rods are out, is simply to leave it for about 50 years at which point you don’t need any specialised machinery or protection to dismantle it.
There are interesting issues surrounding nuclear, but I don’t believe ERoEI is one of them . The current fuel cost is about 0.01c a kWh
Actual running cots are far more a balance between O&M and cost of capital, both running at something like 7.5% of principle cost . Decomissoning is around 15% of original capital cost.
The reason for nuclear decline in Europe and the USA is very simple. Cost of capital and over regulation drove the capital costs, and the financing costs up together, to the point where the technology was no longer commercially viable.
Because of this decline the waste FUEL problem has become a hot potato. Uranium 235 has a very long half life – that is why its still available as a fuel of course. Normally reprocessed fuel would have been burnt in reactors BUT with a decline in the number of European reactors between 1970 and 2010 there were no reactors to burn it and the cost of fresh uranium was less than the cost of reprocessing anyway – this has led to large stockpiles of fuel and plutonium – also a potential fuel – being stored while a decision was taken on what to do with it.
Europe switched to very low capital cost gas plant: The USA and other places stayed with coal.
This situation is changing though. The absolute cost in terms of carbon reduction makes nuclear power by far and away the cheapest way to decarbonise electricity production, (if that is regarded as a necessary thing to do). It is overall even including decommissioning and fuel reprocessing between three and twenty times cheaper than new ‘renewables’ (excluding hydroelectric) when analysed holistically. It could be even cheaper with mass production and changes to regulatory frameworks.
The technical issues with spent fuel, safety and decommissioning are all intrinsically soluble at reasonable costs – the issues with ‘renewable’ energy are intrinsically insoluble. There isn’t enough (nuclear) sunlight falling on the earth, to make it enough to drive an expanding population with rising energy needs nor is there any efficient way to garner it cheaply, at any sort of sane efficiency level, and, there is no way to store it in the quantities needed to replace dispatchable power stations running off stored fossil fuel or fissile material. And indeed even if there were to be answers to all of those, the impact on the earth’s ecosystems of diverting the energy flows that drive the whole ecosystem, into electricity production would be an ecological tampering far far beyond anything so far achieved with fossil fuel burning. Renewable energy wouldn’t be avoiding climate change,: it would be causing it.
It will take time for these issues to become apparent of course. Time in which trillions will be wasted on alternatives, that will prove fruitless, while the world continues to burn up the fossil fuel it cannot replace except with nuclear. Some nations appreciate this – the Middle East Oil states are all involved in nuclear programs. India and China – the biggest population pools of all – are also deeply involved.
Others do not. Germany is a typical case of extreme double think, where a safe and productive and cost effective nuclear sector is being dismantled in favour of useless but politically inspired Solar and wind power, whilst the reality is that its electrical power emissions are increasing, as more and more cheap and polluting lignite power stations are de mothballed and constructed. And industry is being shut down and moved elsewhere due to spiralling energy prices.
The primary problem in a market economy is that nuclear represents a big risk for investors. The need is to run a reactor for 60 years, through many changes of government, against a climate of fear driven my competing energy generators and media hysteria. Right now the only safe investment is government guaranteed massive income from wind power, where the subsidy and tax regime makes a 5 year payback both within the time frame of a given government, and the expectation of investors.
The big German power companies have simply gone with the flow: majoring on coal and wind, because these are profitable. Gas in Europe is now too expensive to compete with coal, and nuclear has been shut by decree.
It is very dangerous to try and analyse the market forces in a market which is no longer free: And power in Europe is utterly dominated by government subsidy and regulation.
At the fringes of the EU, nuclear power is making a resurgence: France, UK, Finland, Sweden – all are building new nuclear, as are the Ex sovbloc nations. The German dominated areas of Germany Austria and Sweden and N Italy are phasing it out. But they are in anyway fed largely from France, whose nuclear power represents their third biggest national export.
Overall, its a highly complex picture. Where the governments are led by engineering technocrats and there is less democracy, nuclear power is being installed: In those countries deeply involved in cold war propaganda, where anti-nuclear messages were for years massively funded by eastern bloc interest, as part of a national defence initiative, it is unsurprising that the political opposition is so vociferous. Here nuclear power is given the emotional epithets of ‘old, dirty, polluting, and past its sell-by date’; None of which are true. The attention is all on ‘new clean wind’ whereas the actual power IS being generated by ‘dirty old coal’ .
The ability of people to fool each other is infinitely greater than their ability to face up to reality, it seems. A market force that shouldn’t be discounted.
I agree with most of what you are saying.
People don’t understand that what they think are other options won’t really work, either.
Nuclear is not very good because of the radiation issues (but different people view radiation issues very differently, given our other exposure to radiation), but the other electric options available are somewhat between bad and terrible. Natural gas would probably be the best option in Germany, but it is too expensive (and still has CO2 issues and is a finite resource).
Radiation danger from nuclear fuel and its byproducts is significantly different from the radiation you are exposed to from the Sun. Because of their chemical composition, if/when these chemicals make it out into the environment they can be taken up by your body and substitute for what other non-radioactive transition metals and non-metals do. Thus I-131 for instance can be concentrated in the Thyroid gland.
Once captured inside you body, if it is a substance constantly emitting Gamma Rays, its constantly bombarding all the cells around it. Thus those cells are getting many times the level of background radiation you are exposed to from the outside in.
The danger is particularly acute for children who have rapidly grwoing and dividing cells. The danger to the Japanese children isn’t so much from the backround radiation from the outside (although that is a probelm nearby Fuk-U-Shima), the danger is that their entire food and water supply is being contaminated by these chemicals, and then once this food is consumed they start to accumulate inside the body and eventually cause a variety of cancers as the radiation damages the DNA being replicated.
There is simply no way to keep these poisons from escaping into the environment in the long term. Continuing to produce them is species suicide. They must be ABOLISHED and the poisons thusfar produced collected up and disposed of as far away as possible, hopefully dropping them down to a subduction zone around the Marianas Trench, or parring that in Antarctica where hopefully only the penguins end up going extinct.
I’m curious about what is meant by ‘in vitro leaching’. Is there an alternative method called ‘in vivo leaching’? Is anyone proposing collecting the bodies of recently deceased nuclear industry workers as a way of keeping radioactive waste out to the environment?
The World Nuclear Association webpage has a subpage called “In Situ Leach (ISL) MIning of Uranium”. Hopefully you can get to it from this link. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/default.aspx?id=434&terms=leaching%20uranium
Proponents of nuclear power seem not to realize that there is a market place of environmental perception. Regulators and investors are subject to facts of perception. There is a significant body of opinion that believes nuclear is dangerous. In a democratic country, like Germany, this cannot be ignored by the regulators or investors.
Consider the current market value of a nuclear power plant in Germany today vs. what it was a few years ago. Now it is ‘worth’ an negative amount. In contrast, a few years ago a prudent investor would have expected several decades of return on investment. Investors don’t like to suffer such losses. It really doesn’t matter what the scientific facts are. Merkel and her government have killed private ownership of nuclear power. No matter what the actual science turns out to be.
I agree with you on most things but I believe the companies affected by the German decision are taking the German Government to court. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the process will be.
Also I agree that there needs to be more done to discuss Nuclear as an option. This would require having an honest conversation about the facts of nuclear energy, both positive and negative.
“Nuclear generated electricity avoided 613 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011 in the U.S. This is nearly as much carbon dioxide as is released from 118 million cars, which is nearly all U.S. passenger cars.”
Need to be communicated. In addition the Yukka Mountain indecision should not be repeated (1000 jobs lost!), communicate that “black swan” events could happen and what will be the response, and get the work done in finding a real solution for permanent waste (like Carlsbad, NM?) rather than having the DC Circuit court (http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/57ACA94A8FFAD8AF85257A1700502AA4/$file/11-1045-1377720.pdf) make the decision that the USA has to “get its act together” beyond just creating blue ribbon panels.
I don’t think we agree on my main point. The future that you envision is not happening on schedule you envision, I my opinion. Politics is delaying it to the point where no rational financier can envision ever investing in this technology. (Again, in my opinion.) Thus, in my opinion, the technical merits or demerits of one or another technical path to a nuclear future are largely irrelevant to the real world, until we figure out a way to keep financiers out of the decision making chain. Socialism? Not really, I think. But what else is available?
The courts might be purchased by a really wealthy financier, but even a really wealth financier might be put off by the FUD campaign.
Thanks for that comment Leo. I agree to almost everything you mentioned. Concerning following statement: ” There isn’t enough (nuclear) sunlight falling on the earth”,
I have in mind that the global energy needs account for 1% of the solar energy received on earth. Do you have other figures?
I mostly agree.
ERoEI analyses done ages ago came out pretty well, and for this reason there are quite a few peak oil people who are pro-nuclear. EROEI estimates using Chinese costs of construction, and ignoring decommissioning, would probably come out even better. The cost of uranium extraction with in vitro leaching (which is what Kazakhstan uses) is more energy efficient than prior techniques, and would probably bring EROEI estimates up more. That is part of what is keeping the price down.
In my view, high EROEI is necessary, but not sufficient. A person needs to think about other dangers as well.
The oil needed for decommissioning is likely not going to be there–this is another problem.
In the report commissioned by the Australian Government in 2006, “Life Cycle Energy Balance”, the ISA team at Sydney University found a base case scenario for LWR nuclear had a full life cycle ERoEI of 5.5 (range 2.5 – 6.0), which is less than the cut-off point they chose for wind in not-so-windy places, and hydro in not-so-good places. ( http://www.peakoil.org.au/isa.life-cycle-energy-balance.pdf )
I don’t want to defend the values (assumptions) they plugged into their spreadsheet, ( http://www.peakoil.org.au/isa.nuclear-calculator.xls ) but the methodology is good, so if people want to claim different assumptions, I wish they would just plug them into this spreadsheet and tell us the answers they get.
Nuclear is at least a replacement for electricity because it is a steady supply; wind and solar PV are only a replacement for the fuel that electrical generating stations use. You still have to build power plants and operate them, to a very significant extent. In the case of Germany, what is needed is natural gas plants–something which is expensive in Germany.
Sometimes electricity is given a higher quality factor, since people willingly burn coal or natural gas for electricity. If you put in a quality factor difference of 3 for nuclear relative to wind and solar PV, it brings it to a more suitable level.
Considering that their waste needs to be sequestered for millenia, which countries that use nuclear power have “solved” the problem of nuclear waste disposal, ?
I am always vastly amused by the double think that e.g. climbs an area of moorland to admire the view thinking ‘God, how natural and unspoilt’ and is perfectly content to experience natural radiation at a level of 10 times the nuclear industry ‘major incident level’ and somehow regards that same radiation – if it happens to have passed through a refining process and done something useful – as now ‘dangerous waste that will be there for milllenia’.
Nuclear is a difficult topic.
There are a lot of issues that are huge problems, and very contentious. It a person starts writing about those issues, they close out all reasonable discussion on other topics.
I have written several anti-nuclear posts. For example,
Oil Shortages Make Nuclear a Less Viable Option
Is Loss of Electricity a Risk for Spent Fuel?
There are a number of pro-nuclear sites (including TOD, based on votes of editors, for example) and it is difficult to get articles posted on those sites if they express negative views about nuclear. Neither of the above posts appeared on TOD, for example.
I have had a long interest in the possible effects of low level ionizing radiation. I first trained as an x-ray technician while in high school. Worked as a night and weekend x-ray technician while in medical school then went into radiology. I have followed the radiation controversy since the 50’s and have attended meetings of the Health Physics Society. I am reasonably convinced that there is more evidence for radiation hormesis than for the LNT (Linear No-Threshold) Model. If so then much of the low level radiation hysteria may be unwarranted. Google T. D. Luckey if interested
Where would Fukushima type radiation fall, in your view–would it still be below the limit where it makes much difference?
Various levels. Some of the initial workers were said to encounter high doses that could have been lethal within hours. But I do not recall seeing any reports of workers dying of acute radiation sickness such as might occur at 500+ rad levels (I am more comfortable with the old system.) At millirad or single digit rad levels any effect is buried in a sea of noise. The LNT model (hypothesis) is accepted and used to claim world wide deaths from events such as Chernobyl. I believe that the LNT model is a political construct without a scientific basis. Incidentally there was a recent report claiming that Hermann J Muller fudged data that was used to ‘prove’ LNT.
Not at all good if true!
We are 15-20 years from a solution. Several generation 4 reactor models can use our “burnt out” uranium (which still has 97% energy content) and reduce the storage requirements to 500-1000 years, which is child’s play for modern engineering.
Our existing used fuel stockpile will last several hundred years.