Climate change

June 23, 2010

The 21st century nuclear renaissance is starting – good news for the climate

Despite what some may like you to believe, the nuclear renaissance is upon us. Don’t let anyone get away with telling you otherwise — they are badly misleading you. Indeed, given that the the real-world facts are so readily available, one really does have to wonder how long these ideologues imagine they can pull the wool over the eyes of the public? Do they really care about fixing climate change?

What is happening now

The bastion of atomic energy over the next two decades will be Generation III reactors, despite the enormous medium- to long-term promise of Generation IV (as I recently explained, here). This is not idle speculation -– it is already happening in the world’s fastest-growing economies. At the time of writing this blog post, over 65 of these modern nuclear reactors are under construction (or nearly so). Twenty-three new nuclear power plants are being built in China alone, which is targeting 70 gigawatts of extra nuclear power by 2020. In addition, there are serious plans in China for two sodium-cooled fast reactors (BN-800) of the “Generation IV” design, following the completion of the first Russian unit in 2012 — the sort of reactor that some people think ‘don’t exist’.

How about this for some supporting statistics: 29 new reactors, totalling 26 gigawatts of electricity output (operating at high capacity factors without the need for energy storage/backup), will start operation in 13 different countries in the 2010 — 2012 period – that’s within the next 3 years (average reactor size is 880 MWe). Of course, this new-generation nuclear deployment rate must continue to accelerate if we’re to have any realistic chance of completely replacing fossil fuels by 2050, but it’s a great beginning!

Justifying assumptions of lifespan and capacity factors

If nuclear energy was too costly and slow to deploy, as some (such as Prof Ian Lowe in his section of the book Why vs Why: Nuclear Power), why would China, South Korea, India, Russia and other rapidly developing nations risk their precious finances on such foolhardy ventures? The answer, these governments say, is that their investment in nuclear power is both prudent and timely, and so they are willing to put their money where their mouths are. This is reality and trumps the hand-wringing concerns of disengaged critics.

With regard to the economics of new nuclear power, Prof Lowe argues (in the Why vs Why book) that my estimates of the economics of nuclear power are “unrealistic” and represent nothing more than “wishful thinking on a grand scale”. He says this is because I assume that a nuclear power station will last for 60 years and deliver power 90 per cent of the time. Let me allay his concerns with some examples from real-world experience.

For the period 2006 to 2008, the 104 reactors operating in the United States reported an energy availability factor of 91.4 per cent. In Korea, Finland and Switzerland, it was 91.9, 93.3 and 92.8 per cent, respectively. Even the Chinese, who are still accumulating experience in optimal operations, reached 86.6 per cent. Furthermore, while the reactors built in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s had a nominal design lifetime of 40 years, more than 60 of them have since been granted licence renewals, extending their operating lives out to 60 years. Others are expected to apply for similar extensions. This is actual performance data, not speculation.

Current construction costs

As I explained above, nuclear power is being most actively pursued today in China (23 reactors currently under construction), India (4), South Korea (6) and Russia (8), and in terms of forward projections through to 2020, China plans to expand its nuclear generation capacity to 70 GW (up from 8.6 GW in 2010), South Korea to 27.3 GW (up from 17.7 GW), and Russia from 43.3 GW (up from 23.2 GW). Looking further ahead, India’s stated goal is 63 GW by 2032 and 500 GW by 2060, whilst China’s 2030 target is 200 GW, with at least 750 GW by 2050. These nations are heavily focused on rapidly overcoming first-of-a-kind (FOAK) costs and establishing standardised designs based around modular construction and passive safety principles. By contrast, the country with the most installed nuclear power – the United States, with over 100 commercial reactors – has announced loan guarantees to support new plants, but has not yet started construction of any Generation III reactors.

It is therefore in the rapidly developing Asian countries that current real-world costs can be most reliably established. The two leading reactor designs now being built in China are the indigenous CPR-1000 and the Westinghouse AP-1000. Reported capital costs are in the range of $1,296 to $1,790/kW. Korea has focused attention on its APR-1400 design, with domestic overnight costs of $2,333/kW. A recent contract for $20.4 billion has been signed with Korean consortium KEPCO to build four APR-1400 reactors in the United Arab Emirates, at a turnkey cost of $3,643/kW. This price is notable considering that it is offered under near-FOAK conditions, because these will be the UAE’s first nuclear plants.

Alternatives are not stacking up

Prof Lowe touts a crystal-ball-gazing exercise by some Stanford University researchers as offering a pathway to a renewable energy solution. I have critiqued that study heavily elsewhere , but the bottom line is this:

If non-hydro renewable energy were truly as cost-effective and could be built on the scale these authors would like you to believe, why has no nation yet followed this energy pathway?

Denmark has done the most in this respect, with 18 per cent of its average energy coming from wind power. Yet, despite this investment in non-hydro renewables, the carbon intensity for electricity production in Denmark is 650 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. By contrast, the figure for France, which draws 77 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, is 90 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. This is more than 7 times lower than Denmark, per unit of delivered electricity. This is the stark reality, not the spin.

Yet again, real-world experience says far more about energy truths than any ivory tower speculation. Importantly, this is an energy truth that is actually great news for carbon emissions reduction and our pursuit of a sustainable society. It’s now urgent that this message to be understood by the classic environmental movement.


Allow me to quote the conclusion of my recent book:

It’s time to embrace nuclear energy as a core technology in the carbon-free revolution that the world needs to address climate change.

Many environmentalists believe the best low-carbon solution is for governments to guide us back to simpler, less energy-consuming lives, a vastly less consumer-oriented world. That is unrealistic. The world will continue to need energy, and lots of it. But fossil fuels are not a viable option. Nor are renewables the main answer. There is no single solution, or “silver bullet”, for solving the energy and climate crises, but there are bullets, and they’re made of uranium and thorium, the fuels needed for nuclear plants.

It is advanced nuclear power that provides the technological key to unlocking the awesome potential of these energy metals for the benefit humankind and for the long-term sustainability of our society and the environment on planet Earth.

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