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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Parsing The Nuclear Cost Argument



Photo courtesy of Siovene via Flickr

Mining the moon for minerals is not likely to be profitable. This explains the dearth of debate on the topic (and the fact that there are no moon mines).

If, as the latest anti-nuclear arguments insist, nuclear energy is also not profitable, why are we debating the topic? In reality, nuclear generated electricity has proven to be profitable, otherwise, like moon mines, they would not exist.

Unlike moon mines, there are lots of nuclear power plants planned as well as currently under construction and many hundreds already humming along producing gargantuan amounts of affordable low carbon electricity.

Nuclear cost arguments are largely academic because we don't get to pick what the market decides to build. If investors don't see a reasonable potential for profit, they won't invest in nuclear ...or solar, or wind.

The cost argument against nuclear generated electricity is a chain with two missing links:

1) Wind and solar, especially with a super grid to make them feasible, are also more expensive than coal and require government assistance in the market. The cost argument against nuclear is equally applicable to wind and solar.

2) A renewable grid capable of lighting two coasts and everything in between every night is an untested hypothesis.

I'd rather see nuclear join forces with a renewable grid to defeat King coal, which would work, no question about it. Not sure it's smart betting our children's futures on an untested hypothesis.

Try to keep in mind that an argument in favor of nuclear generated electricity is not an argument against other low carbon forms of energy. Obviously, there are many economically feasible, mutually beneficial ways to make electricity depending on circumstances. Here in the Pacific Northwest we are presently idling wind turbines and giving hydro power away. That does not mean that hydro is the answer to the world's energy needs. We will need a mix of energy sources.

Thanks to the Internet, the old arguments against nuclear power have come under scrutiny and they are not holding up very well. For example, the scare tactic of exaggerating the dangers of radiation has just joined the discredited arguments about waste disposal and bomb proliferation thanks to environmental journalist George Monbiot's article titled:

The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all

Amory Lovins, a major figure spearheading the nuclear cost argument, used this radiation scare tactic just a few weeks ago in an article posted on Grist:

Nuclear-promoting regulators inspire even less confidence. The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 2005 estimate ...of about 4,000 Chernobyl deaths contrasts with a rigorous 2009 review of 5,000 mainly Slavic-language scientific papers the IAEA overlooked. It found deaths approaching a million through 2004, nearly 170,000 of them in North America. The total toll now exceeds a million, plus a half-trillion dollars' economic damage. The fallout reached four continents, just as the jet stream could swiftly carry Fukushima fallout.


Riiight. That "rigorous review" he mentions was not so rigorous. Read what Andrew Revkin of the New York Times had to say to a commenter who was parroting this argument:

You may have missed that bit of journalism where Monbiot contacted the New York Academy of Sciences, which said it in no way endorsed or peer-reviewed the book (noting that no one else did, either). And his citation of that review that strongly challenged its conclusions. Perhaps you have another source for the 970,000 deaths? Here's the relevant section of Monbiot's piece:
Like John Vidal and many others, Helen Caldicott pointed me to a book which claims that 985,000 people have died as a result of the disaster(14). Translated from Russian and published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, this is the only document which looks scientific and appears to support the wild claims made by greens about Chernobyl.

A devastating review in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry points out that the book achieves its figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the accident(15). There is no basis for this assumption, not least because screening in many countries improved dramatically after the disaster and, since 1986, there have been massive changes in the former eastern bloc. The study makes no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease(16).

Its publication seems to have arisen from a confusion about whether the Annals was a book publisher or a scientific journal. The academy has given me this statement: “In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer-reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else.”(17)


With the old arguments beginning to crumble all around them, nuclear energy critics have been rallying around the newer cost argument.

If there were mines on the moon producing a significant amount of our minerals you could argue about their costs but there are no mines on the moon. There are a lot of nuclear power plants producing a very significant percentage of the electricity generation on this planet at very affordable prices and these power plants have the lowest environmental footprint of any power source.

As the cost argument begins to crumble (more cost efficient and safe nuclear plants are built), critics are expanding it to include the length of time it takes to build a conventional nuclear power plant--as if it won't take a long time to build a renewable energy grid.

It took years to design and build the Nissan Leaf. If your car were custom designed from scratch like a typical nuclear plant of today it would have cost you tens of millions of dollars.

Standardized nuclear power plant designs could be built fast and cheap as was done in France, which gets over 70 percent of its power from nuclear.

For more thoughts on how nuclear could be used to help renewables defeat King Coal read:

The Nuclear Enhanced Renewable Grid (NERG)

Reframing Nuclear Power as an Ally of Renewable Energy

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2 comments:

  1. Alain3:08 AM

    " Standardized nuclear power plant designs could be built fast and cheap as was done in France, which gets over 70 percent of its power from nuclear. "

    There is no such thing as a standardised npp right now anywhere in the world, they are all custom built for their clients, even the 'new' GENIII plants being erected in the USA and Europe. There is no such thing as a cheap npp anywhere in the world.

    France isn't building new ones fast and cheap, on the contrary. The two new GenIII NPPs being built by Areva in Europe (one in Fance and one in Finland) are both hugely over budget, are years behind contractually agree building planning terms and still not anywhere near completion, caused by project management and design issues. They are all enormously complicated designs, designed to use radioactive matter to make steam. They are VERY expensive too, just to make steam.

    The same history is repeating itself in the USA : no fixed price turnkey contracts to build a few new NPP's, NPP contractors simply won't built them using such contract types, who are standard practice in all other power gen technologies, including renewable energy. The results are similar as in France and Finland : hugely over budget, years behind contractually agree building planning terms and still not anywhere near completion

    Monbiot hasn't been in Pripjet for a long time. Pripjet is the 100 000 people city located near tchernobyl, who has been transformed into a ghost town. 100 000 people lost their homes, and many women subsenquently later on bore malformed kids. All have a yearly medical check of their thyroid glands. Kids are suffering cancer rate far higher than the national Ukrainian average. The 4000 sq. km (1544 sq. miles) surrounding Tchernobyl are off limits for hundreds of human generations. How much does that cost them ?

    When I see how much sweat it did cost me to pay off my home mortgage, I definitely would not trust some npp maintenance engineer toiling 100km away in one of those behemoths, and that has to cut corners because his managers orders him to. Managers that don't want to shut down the plant for some needed maintenance works, and lose electricity power sales in the process.

    Overreacting ? Just look at the amateurism displayed in full sight in Japan, up until past year the second biggest economy in the world, with huge technological capabilities. I saw yesterday a documentary on France 5 TV channel over Japan's NPP sector. Fukushima is only the second one of the several disasters waiting to happen. Another plant built near Yokohama, is built bang on 3 fault lines, 100 meter from the sea shore, and protected from tsunami's by a 10 meter high sand dune wall. 4 reactors at the plant. Tectonic plate danger and tsunami danger were known before the start of the erection of those 4 NPP, government in connivance with the power gen utility simply ignored the dangers : they needed the power in the 1980's and renewable energy sources then weren't as competitive as they are now. The plant can resist a 7.0 earthquake, and a 10m high tsunami. Everything above that is not covered in the design. Water cooling designs are faulty, since they are a copy of the ones used in Fukushima.

    Bottom line : just screw NPP, they are expensive boondoggles that are built and maintained by not trustworthy profit based organizations, in connivance with Big Brother governments that want the lights on, and who will use taxpayers money to correct every problem caused by those NPPs if something really nasty happens. Of course, the government apparatchik who signed the go forward paper will have moved to another job or have retired into a well paying job at a private entity by the time something really nasty will happen with that new built NPP.

    Of course, you will have no issue to see some rusty radioactive waste drums pop up near your front yard.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Alain,

    I appreciate that you took the time and effort to write down your own words and thoughts this time. Go here to see why I deleted your second comment.

    "...There is no such thing as a standardised npp right now anywhere in the world..."

    I said that a standardized design "would" greatly reduce costs. I did not say that nuclear power plants being built are all of a standard design. You need to get your tenses correct.

    "...France isn't building new ones fast and cheap, on the contrary..."

    I didn't say France is presently building fast cheap standardized designs. I said France "did" build them. "Did" is past tense in the English language.

    ".. They are VERY expensive too, just to make steam. .."

    That steam drives turbines that turn generators that produce massive amounts of low carbon electricity. Note that they are being built anyway and will one day provide low carbon, competitively priced electricity for forty to sixty years.

    ".. and many women subsenquently later on bore malformed kids. .."

    No birth defects have ever been linked to Chernobyl. You are a victim of misinformation.

    ".. Kids are suffering cancer rate far higher than the national Ukrainian average .."

    Kids "were" suffering higher rates ...that tense problem again.

    From here:

    ..."the influence of enhanced screening regimes, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident..."

    Not to downplay having a thyroid gland removed, but thyroid cancer has a 95 plus percent cure rate. Three of my relatives have had their thyroid glands removed and have to take thyroid replacement medicines.

    ".. Tchernobyl are off limits for hundreds of human generations. How much does that cost them ? .."

    One hundred generations would be 2,500 years. Chernobyl was the poster child for everything that can go wrong with a nuclear reactor yet it continued to produce electricity for14 years after the accident and created Europe's largest wildlife preserve. If human beings will really stay out of that area for 5,000 years (which I seriously doubt) that would probably make it the last remaining wildlife preserve on the planet.

    ".. Bottom line : just screw NPP, they are expensive boondoggles that are built and maintained by not trustworthy profit based organizations, in connivance with Big Brother governments that want the lights on, and who will use taxpayers money to correct every problem caused by those NPPs if something really nasty happens ..".

    You are describing how airlines are regulated as well--kept safe by government mandated inspections and maintenance. You don't see people calling for an end to air travel every time an airliner crashes.

    Boondoggles? They are quietly, reliably, affordably producing gargantuan amounts of low carbon electricity.

    ".. Of course, you will have no issue to see some rusty radioactive waste drums pop up near your front yard. .."

    That will, of course, never happen.

    ReplyDelete

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