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Monday, June 12, 2017

How much does nuclear cost?


There still seem to be people who think that a big expansion in nuclear generation will save the world from global warming.  I've talked about this before, here and here.

The problems with nuclear are simple.

First off, a nuclear reactor takes a decade or longer to build.  A huge solar farm can be built in a few months.  A huge wind farm in a couple of years.  And we don't have time to waste,  It is imperative that we move rapidly to 100% renewable electricity.

Second, nuclear power is now much more expensive than renewables.  It wasn't always so.  A decade ago, nuclear was in theory cheaper than wind or solar.  But the costs of wind and solar have plummeted in the last 10 years.  The costs of nuclear have risen.

Third, nuclear produces toxic waste with a half-life of thousands of years,  Plus nuclear plants have a nasty habit of going rogue.

The first two problems are exemplified by a proposed expansion to an existing nuclear generator in Virginia, USA.  The plant has already taken 10 years to get to the stage where planning approval is to be granted.  10 years, and construction hasn't even started!  And estimated costs are dramatically higher than wind or solar.  Michael Barnard of CleanTechnica estimates the very lowest cost per MWh for this new facility at $136/MWh, using the most optimistic parameters.  What's more, the cost of capital (8% per annum?  6%?), the cost of insurance (borne by the taxpayer) and the cost of decommissioning at the end of its useful life are all excluded.  Add those factors in and the cost will be well over $200/MWh.  Now wind (after a 30% tax credit) is down to $26/MWh at its cheapest in the USA, solar to $35/MWh.  On even the most favourable calculations, wind and solar are much cheaper than nuclear.

What about the infamous "variability" of wind and solar?  First, nuclear power plants are often closed down for refurbishment or refuelling or go off line because of accidents or safety concerns.  Second, even with storage, in the sunnier parts of the USA, solar with storage is down to $45/MWh.  That's 1/3rd of the cheapest and most optimistic costings for this nuclear plant.   And the thing is, by the time the construction of this reactor is completed, renewables will have fallen in cost by another 50 or 75%!

If I believed that nuclear was a feasible and sensible way to slow global warming I would grit my teeth and support it.  But it isn't.  Even ignoring the safety risks and the toxic waste, getting reasonable amounts of nuclear power into the grid would take far too long and be far too costly.  Renewables could do the same job more quickly and more cheaply without radio-active waste,  Moreover, I suspect that many of those who do enthusiastically promote  nuclear are in truth fossil fuel advocates because they know just how long it would take to get nuclear power plants approved and constructed, and meanwhile we would need to go on using coal and gas, right?

Global temperatures keep on rising.  Even though this isn't an El Niño year, the average temperature  anomaly for the 12 months to April is the second highest in the record.  We can't phaff around with nuclear.  It's not going to solve our problem.

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