Thoughts on the eternal headache that is nuclear power – part 3 of 6: innovation cycles, cost, bombs

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.]

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on the eternal headache that is nuclear power – part 3 of 6: innovation cycles, cost, bombs

  1. The guided tour of an AGR was an interesting piece. I particularly liked the description of the safety aspect orchestrated by a committee who were terrified of forgetting where they’d left their screwdriver.

    Oh, and the bit about flying a fully fuelled 747 into it and the plane would simply smear itself across its surface.

    And the bit that seemed to me to be so “Happy” – Whoever designed these things didn’t believing in using half-inch steel plate where two-inch plate would do.

  2. What about the potential future usage of nuclear power beyond simply generating electricity?

    If we’re going to attempt inter-stellar travel (something that is going to become necessary sooner or later) we will need to have a much better understanding of nuclear energy and how it can be contained and used efficiently. We’re not going to learn that by shelving the technology now.

    I also think the development cycle is a red herring. There are plenty of technologies in use today that took hundreds of years to understand properly.

    1. >There are plenty of technologies in use today that took hundreds of years to understand properly.

      But if it takes 5 generations of nuclear power plants to understand properly, that’s 100 years. In the same amount of time, wind power has gone through 20 generations of optimization, so has economic advantages as well as a far lower capital cost. The final realizable installed cost per watt of windpower might be higher than for nuclear, but if it takes us 200 years to get there, that’s a difficult argument to sell.

      1. Absolutely. Even for inter-planetary travel, nuclear power is the only energy source with the energy-mass ratio high enough to make this happen. However, to get to the kind of bright future where we have the option of spreading humanity off the planet, we rapidly need sources of large-scale low carbon electricity. Can nukes be part off that? Well, I’ll get on to that next week.

      2. True, but I still don’t buy it as an argument to abandon the technology. The potential gains from understanding and controlling nuclear energy cleanly and efficiently are enormous and extend well beyond heating water to spin a turbine.

        The feedback loop on renewable resources is also potentially hundreds or thousands of years. We currently have very little understanding of how disturbing wind patterns may affect the environment. However you do it you are always removing energy from one system and channeling it into another.

        If we erect fields and fields full of solar panels soaking up the sunlight how will that affect the environment? Certainly the area directly under the panels will be robbed of a significant energy source and will be changed. What will be the flow on effects? We don’t know. Should we abandon solar power because of this? Hell no, but we can’t say for a fact what the effects will be and may not know for a considerable period of time.

        The feedback loop argument applies to ALL energy sources and needs to be considered. Trying to say that we will know all of the impacts from renewable sources in only a few years ignores the potential long term effects and is a dangerous way of thinking.

  3. Also the technology to make a nuclear bomb is quite a lot more complicated than just getting a couple of lumps of fuel and putting them together.

    Although the fuels and reactions are similar, the main challenge in making a bomb is containing the reaction until it actually explodes. This is why no nuclear power plant will ever produce a nuclear explosion. The reaction gets so hot it melts the containment vessel and the pressure is released.

    The Israelis bombed the power plants because they were vital infrastructure, not because they were nuclear. It’s a pretty standard tactic of war.

    1. Having a “complete” civilian nuclear program enables a nation to get to the point of being able to quickly build a bomb, even if all the actual hardware is civilian use only.

      If you take the uranium path (the easiest from a point of view of bomb making) you have refining and enrichment (needed for all current commercial reactors) as well as isotope generation (for some initiator designs).

      With the plutonium path, there is reprocessing, material handling and again isotope generation to master.

      A nation with an established nuclear fuel cycle is only a couple of years from making a bomb (it took the US three years from establishing Los Alamos to the bomb, and they had to work everything out from scratch).

      The only way round this is for states to be essentially “nuclear colonies” with a fuel cycle managed overseas – which is unpopular with the client states (for the legitimate reason of security of supply) and with the supplier states, who then have to deal with other peoples waste.

    2. True, there’s more to it, but fission bombs are 1940s technology. Fusion bombs are 1950s technology. It took the US about a million person-years of work to build the first bomb; I’m told that the South Africans built six bombs in the early 1980s with just hundreds of man-years. Making bombs is getting easier all the time and the main constraint is access to bomb-grade material.

      The Israelis attacked the one Iraq reactor entirely outside of any war, back in 1982 or so. They didn’t want the Iraqs to have the ability to make bomb materials.

      1. I’m still not convinced that bombs are a realistic reason to avoid nuclear power generation.

        The countries that could possibly build a nuclear bombs already have access to conventional technologies that can create some pretty effective weaponry. They don’t need nuclear bombs to blow up their enemies, they already can do that, but they don’t (well, mostly). Having access to
        nuclear technology is not going to suddenly make them more aggressive.

        The people in charge of these countries are not stupid. Every one of them will know that to let off such a device would be essentially suicidal.

        In fact, if we’re going to be nervous about countries having access to nukes it should be the big ones that have less reason to be concerned about retaliation. But that genie is already out of the bag.

  4. UK magnox civilian reactor design

    Magnox was originally a military plutonium programme under the guise of civilian nuclear power. (Britain originally made Pu in somewhat primitive and dangerous reactors using forced air cooling, almost a generation back from the US Hanford designs. Magnox took their Pu (and tritium) production into a more modern and effective era). Eventually non-proliferation treaties forced them to separate military and civilian plants in the 1960s. (Calder Hall and Chapelcross became the designated “military” reactors).

    The plant has cost the UK getting on for three billion quid with no hope for a profit in sight

    It did let them build nuclear weapons though. Arguably, having nukes ensured that Britain avoided major military engagement from 1956 to 1989 (’81 if you count the Falklands, which we don’t). Not so much because Russia was afraid of being nuked, but because Britain itself was inhibited from military action by the danger of nuclear escalation (and couldn’t afford effective conventional armed forces as well as the nuclear force).

    No war for thirty years has to be worth something.

    1. PS: or it could have been a dangerous, polluting and expensive waste of money.

      But it was built as a military installation and largely exists because of the UK’s desire to produce Pu for bombs.

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