Debunking the low-cost nuclear myth

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As environmental groups the world over agonize about whether to dance with the devil and embrace the undoubted low-carbon claims of nuclear power generation – at least as a bridging solution to a renewable-powered world – familiar arguments in favor of nuclear are once again emerging.

An article by Jonathan Ford in U.K. business newspaper the Financial Times yesterday appeared to outline the persuasive economic case for new nuclear.

The author argued, contrasting figures about the huge cost of building new nuclear facilities with the low energy strike price that can be generated by renewable energy projects is misleading.

Ford considered the hypothetical need to provide 1 GW of energy, with nuclear and offshore wind as the competing options. The writer started by pointing out a nuclear reactor generates energy at around 90% efficiency, twice the level achieved by offshore wind – and way beyond what PV can boast, but let’s stick to the hypothetical scenario for now. That means, said Ford, approximately twice as much generation capacity needs to be constructed for the renewable project.

Why did Toshiba and Hitachi give up?

Nuclear of course, has no intermittency concerns – or at least, we had all better pray it doesn’t – so the imagined offshore wind plant project also needs to factor in an hugely expensive, near-1 GW of battery storage too, to be ready for periods of low wind.

That would still leave the renewables project cheaper to construct than the nuclear option – for want of a better phrase – an outcome that somewhat undermines the writer’s economic claims for the latter. However, Ford then delivers his coup de grace, the fact nuclear reactors last at least twice as long as renewables projects. Which means, of course, the money spent on the hypothetical wind power installation has to be doubled, finally making it notably more expensive than a new reactor.

Which begs the question, why did Toshiba and Hitachi run for the hills when they contemplated the costs of bringing Britain’s next generation of nuclear plants to fruition, as Ford readily acknowledged at the top of his article.

As an exercise in persuading readers to dig below the headlines, the piece is a partial success. Simply comparing the strike price – in online auction site terminology the ‘Buy it Now’ guaranteed purchase price – of two energy sources is oversimplistic.

Who cleans up the mess?

However the writer is guilty, as so many before him have been, of ignoring the elephant in the room with nuclear. If an offshore wind farm – or a PV project, for that matter – fails, the cost is borne largely by commercial insurance providers through a policy the developer holds. It’s certainly true that the cost of such an event is not entirely contained, as there will be a minimal knock-on effect on future insurance premiums.

What nuclear proponents consistently fail to mention is the economic cost when a nuclear reactor fails. It is impossible to purchase a corporate insurance policy that will comprehensively guarantee to cover the costs incurred in the event of a reactor meltdown, or other failure that releases significant amounts of radiation into the environment. Who foots the bill? You and I, as taxpayers, via the government – often governments –affected.

Factor in the costs of a clean-up after a catastrophe such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, and there is no energy source that even comes close to the financial costs of nuclear, and that is not to consider the measures needed to deal safely with nuclear waste.

It may be unrealistic to argue the world will be able to run entirely on renewables without a single penny being spent on nuclear generation from today onwards, especially if we also want to keep other fossil fuels in the ground. Nuclear is a low carbon option and, it could be argued, may be a necessary evil until every roof in the world has solar on it – but don’t try and persuade us it is a cost-competitive option.

And when Mr Ford implies that the long life of nuclear facilities means they can be left to run and run at minimal cost, it is tempting to wonder which option he would prefer living downwind of – a 60-year-old nuclear facility or a wind or PV installation of the same vintage.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.