Cheap nuclear: an oxymoron

Cheap nuclear: an oxymoron

by: hotflash

Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 16:37:53 PM CDT

As the twentieth century came to a close, nuclear power was in disrepute because it was so much more expensive per kilowatt hour than coal. But people worldwide were beginning to face the reality of climate change; therefore, many of them were lured by promises the nuclear industry made about a new generation of nuclear reactors–safer, simpler in design and therefore cheaper. People hoped, with the turn of the century and the millennium, that those promises would materialize, as forecast, by 2010.

But they haven’t. Stephen Thomas, professor of Energy Studies at the University of Greenwich in England, has worked on energy policy for the last 30 years with an emphasis on nuclear economics. He explained, on a conference call hosted by the Coalition for the Environment, that far from becoming cheaper, the “new generation” of plants is plagued with problems and far more expensive than predicted.

In 2002, the Bush government launched its nuclear 2010 programme on the basis that these new designs would be competitive enough to survive unsubsidised in free electricity markets. All that was needed was limited Federal subsidies, worth a few billion dollars for a handful of plants to demonstrate to nervous financiers that these new designs overcame the problems that had plagued earlier orders, then orders would need no subsidies. The first plants were expected on-line in 2010.

A decade on, and even before the Fukushima disaster, the timetable has slipped, and estimated costs have increased about 6-fold–the promise of safer, simpler and cheaper was either a delusion or a deception. None of the five new designs being considered in the USA has completed a review by the US safety authorities and, for example, the EPR’s [Evolutionary Power Reactor, a design common in France] certification was pushed back in February 2011 to mid-2013. The scale of subsidies required has escalated massively, and it is clear that unsubsidised orders are not feasible.

The EPR is seen as the front-runner of these new technologies because it was the first to win orders and because France is often portrayed as the model of how to implement a nuclear power programme cheaply and efficiently. However, these advantages now seem questionable. EPR has won two orders in Western Europe: for Olkiluoto in Finland, construction work starting there in August 2005; and for Flamanville in France, where work started in December 2008. Two further orders were placed for China but these have been under construction for less than 18 months.

Things have gone wrong from the start of construction at Olkiluoto, and the forecast construction period of 4 years is now 8 years. The construction cost was supposedly set by a ‘turnkey’ or fixed price contract for €3bn, but the latest estimate is nearly double this. Areva is refusing to honour the contract price, and it and the utility are locked in an acrimonious dispute over who will pay these extra costs. This bad experience was written off by some as down to failures with the utility, and it was assumed that EDF, the French utility which operates 58 reactors, with its vast experience, would not suffer the same problems. However, things are going no better at Flamanville; and after two years’ construction, it was two years late and 50% over-budget.

This EDF design is the one Ameren would presumably use, but it would do Ameren no good to consider any of the other designs. None of them, according to Thomas, have performed any better.

Add the economic reasons to avoid another nuclear plant to the fact that it would sit on the New Madrid fault line. Then factor all that into the knowledge that if Missouri would take steps to become more energy efficient, it wouldn’t even need another plant of any type. What conclusion do you reach, class?

Right. No need even to spell the answer out, is there?

Show Me Progress:: Cheap nuclear: an oxymoron

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