Money. Like it or not, the success of any energy system is strongly tied to how well the financial case can be shown to stack up. This is certainly true with nuclear power.
Right now nuclear is being constructed in pretty solid quantities (about 60 reactors under construction) with a much larger number planned, in a steadily growing list of nations. At the exact same time, new nuclear build is fighting an uphill battle of costs in places like the United States and the UK, where the product it provides (reliable, zero carbon, baseload-suitable electricity) is wanted, but the pathway to getting it seems a real challenge. With global energy demand set to double by 2050, we need nuclear to win this cost fight hands-down if we are to force fossil fuels from the picture and achieve the global decarbonisation we require.
How can both situations be happening at once? Is nuclear too expensive? Cheap enough? Or some combination of both???
As ever, truth is found in the detail, not the sound-byte.
Nuclear is cheaper and better value, by far, than other sources of zero-carbon electricity when they are up-scaled to large power plants. They also give well-priced and consistently-priced electricity that is immune to changes in fuel and carbon prices (and no, that outcome is not dependent on subsidy). This was clearly demonstrated in the Australian Energy Technology Assessment 2012 which said “combined cycle gas …and nuclear power, offer the lowest LCOE over most of the projection period and they both remain cost competitive with the lower cost renewable technologies out to 2050″. So, in energy markets that have retained a higher level of central planning, with a longer term view, and provided finance mechanisms to overcome the upfront cost, nuclear power finds a lot of favour. With Barry Brook, I discussed that issue in detail in this article.
At the same time, nuclear remains sufficiently more expensive in up-front capital than new fossil generation. That stands to reason as it is a far superior product; cleaner, safer and more reliable. But in the absence of firm guiding policy and more centralised planning from Government (such as is typical in the more liberal energy markets of the US, UK and Australia) it cannot muscle fossil fuels out of the frame. That is going to require research and development in new, smaller forms of nuclear to make it the true no-brainer that can win the fight without the elusive and politically fraught policy direction on climate change that might be used to bridge the gap. That issue has been discussed beautifully by the folks at The Breakthough Institute in this article.
Where does that leave us in Australia? Well, we have work to do in breaking down the little-known legislative barriers that stand in the way of uptake of nuclear power, no matter the capital cost.
We actually have achieved the legislation of an economic instrument in the form of a carbon-pricing mechanism that will improve the case for nuclear. We can fight to open this market mechanism to the solution of nuclear, and for the mechanism to become firmer with less windfall gain for the fossil fuel sector, and we can fight for the only climate-sensible policy that no new baseload can be constructed that is not zero-carbon.
Finally, we can work to bring the case for nuclear power into the light at every opportunity so that when we are ready for action, we are less exposed to the vexatious, ideological objections of the few but loud voices who still somehow believe nuclear power is a major threat compared to climate change. Such opposition has a long history of driving up the costs of nuclear, with the inevitable result of fossil fuel getting an inexplicable free-ride from these same voices as it take on the electricity-generation load. We deserve better. So let’s work for it.