Every technology starts by being too expensive. The production costs of solar cells started at US$250 per Watt, back in the 1950s, then $65 per Watt in 1976, and now they’re pushing $1.4 per Watt. Why?
Short innovation cycles:
Simply put, it comes down to short innovation cycles. Let’s say you’ve got a bright idea for a better solar cell. Does it work? Well, try it and see. Make it, lay it in the sun, see if it works. If it doesn’t, then you’ve learnt not to do that. If it does, then have a beer and get on to testing the next bright idea. And then repeat that process, generation after generation, innovation after innovation, and watch as your costs plummet and your market share grows. The quicker you can get the cycle time down, the faster your technology gets better.
Now, let’s say you’ve got a bright idea for a better nuclear plant. Does it work? Well… design a new reactor, prove that it is safe, prove that it is affordable, build enough political support to get the money to build it, find somewhere to put it, fight through the planning enquiries, build it, taking twice as many years you thought it would, and then turn it on and see.
(Hell, I shouldn’t have to tell the geeks here this. The secret to rapid programming is to squeeze your code-test-debug cycle time down to as rapid as possible. I’ve done programming projects where that cycle time was weeks and I’ve done projects where it was ten seconds. Guess which project delivered on time? In contrast, it took eighteen years just to build the UK’s first AGR, and that’s ignoring the research, design, and planning stage before build starts. They’re still kind of awesome, though a technological dead end.)
Solar cells, wind turbines, marine plants – they’re all mammals. Fast innovation time, multiple generations per decade resulting in rapidly plummeting prices. Nuclear plants are dinosaurs. They’re mega-projects, capital heavy, and for safety reasons they cannot be allowed to fail. What’s the innovation cycle time? First commercial nuclear plants kicked off in the mid-1950s. We’re now building the European Pressurised water Reactor, a third generation design. That’s twenty years per generation.
So how quickly will the costs of nuclear power fall? Not as fast as the costs of renewables.
So in a sense, this whole debate is a temporary one. We all know what happened to the dinosaurs. Large-scale wind has been through this, the cost of on-shore wind power has fallen to the point where it is cost-competitive without subsidy in large parts of the world. Off-shore wind is on the same plummeting price curve. Marine power is next, with larger and larger demonstration machines in the water across the world. It is still too expensive, but give it 5-15 years and it’ll take off, just as wind has done. Solar electricity is continuing to plummet in price, still uncompetitive in most nations, but again, 5-15 years and it’ll be the same price or cheaper. Concentrated solar power is doing just the same (that’s when you get a bunch of mirrors, focus sunlight to make steam, and feed that steam through turbines to make electricity).
The world is only considering nukes because renewables haven’t completely kicked their arses yet.
What is the cost of electricity from nuclear generation? That depends upon how much interest you get charged on the loan to build the hardware. A nuclear plant is a major investment, for the third generation European Pressurised water Reactor, you’re looking at three billion Euros up front, and the ongoing cost is basically the cost of the loan to cover that three billion. The interest starts to mount up as soon as you pay the first bill, and nuclear plants take a long time to build, the EPR is designed to be built rapidly, by nuke standards, only six years. (The first one, in Finland, was due to start making electricity and earning money to pay back the loan in May 2009. It’s still under construction, hasn’t earned a penny, and the contractors and owners are now arguing in the courts over who gets lumped with the bill for the excess interest. Oh, and the construction costs are currently 50% over budget. Whoops.)
So just like your mortgage, the weekly payments depend upon the interest rate for the loan and repayment period for that loan. For a multi-billion dollar investment, each of those values depends upon how keen your local government is to make nuclear power competitive the electricity market in your nation. Hence I’ve seen figures for the price of power from nukes from 45-110 US$/MWh, compared with 45-85 for coal (without carbon costs), and 50-200 for wind. So how competitive is nuclear power? That depends upon how much your government wants to bias costs for or against nukes. That’s rarely an economic decision because these kinds of investment decisions are more political than they are economic.
(Oh, and insurance and decommissioning costs are another area where funny accounting can push costs up or down by a fair chunk of change. Currently, no nuclear plant buys private insurance. Given the potential costs of nuclear disasters, private insurance would be harsh. But hey, what’s one more state subsidy, eh?)
The cost of failure and the implications for honesty about costs:
Think about the political economics of nuclear power. Nuclear plants are large capital investments in strategic assets. Buying them is a political decision and investments that big cannot be allowed to fail. So when they do fail, then the next best thing is that they cannot be admitted to have failed, right up until the point where it becomes bleedingly obvious to everyone, generally after it just exploded.
The Japanese had serious form even before Fukushima went tits-up. The Monju fast breeder had a coolant loop failure and sprayed tons of molten sodium into the plant. The operators, PNC of “plutonium boy” fame, flat out refused to admit there had been a problem, to the extent of releasing doctored video tapes of the inside of the plant. Hell, TEPCO were telling us that the Fukushima was serious but stable, right up until the first explosion. Now we know the reactor cores melted within hours of the earthquake.
An example of what happens when it doesn’t explode is Sellafield’s reprocessing plant, Thorp. There’s no smoking crater, just a massively unprofitable money-sink. It was supposed to be profitable, with predictions that it would be profitable, real soon now, stretching back thirty years. There’s Oxford Uni’s recent “A Low Carbon Future: Economic assessment of nuclear materials and spent nuclear fuel management in the UK” report saying that reprocessing will make us lots of money in the future, there’s the 2001 Arthur D Little report saying that reprocessing and MOX will make us lots of money in the future, and there’s the 1978 report on reprocessing at Windscale and I’ll quote directly “The financial advantages of having a plant to reprocess fuel on the basis intended by British Nuclear Fuels Limited are plain”.
The plant has cost the UK getting on for three billion quid with no hope for a profit in sight, but it’s hard to find out exactly just how deep the money-pit goes, because the nuclear industry and the government really don’t want to admit what a financial disaster it has been. Result, a cover-up on the accounting.
This kind of cover-up is endemic in the nuclear industry. It is inherent in the structure of the industry and unavoidable. This is a fundamentally untrustworthy industry, where you cannot take any statements about cost at face value.
Bombs, in brief, coz it’s bloody obvious:
Nuclear technology for civil power is inherently linked to nuclear technology for making bombs. If you don’t believe me, ask why the Israelis have bombed power reactors in Iraq and Syria? Or ask the North Koreans where their plutonium came from? From a reactor based on the UK magnox civilian reactor design. A civilian nuclear power programme gets you the materials, processing technology, and skilled people. Once you can refine natural uranium into civilian fuel, then making bomb-grade material is just a matter of looping through the refining process a few more times. So yeah, wider uptake of nuclear power unavoidably means more nuclear weapon-capable states.
[Am at a conference all day, so responses to comments may be short. It looks to be a good conference though, Biophysical Limits and their Policy Implications.]