Sometimes, in the often heated and intense discussion of nuclear technologies between commentators for and against, it seems like the only people we don’t hear from are those within the actual nuclear industry! I think that’s unfortunate and needs to change, so I am delighted to have the opportunity to publish this post from David Hess, the Communication Manager at the World Nuclear Association. I think David’s contribution is a remarkably frank, fresh and valuable perspective that hits something approaching sensible middle-ground in the decarbonisation discussion. Over to you, David.
An increasing number of climate scientists are getting vocal in support of nuclear energy. There are reasonable objections being raised against them, but unfortunately a lot more unreasonable ones. The reasonable ones are where, collectively, we should be seeking to improve, not give up on the technology
In the margins of the Paris climate talks, a refreshing dialogue was taking place. Nuclear energy was being put forward for serious consideration by some of the very scientists responsible for putting climate change on the public agenda. The views of James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley are summarised in this editorial. They have in effect thrown a gauntlet at the feet of the organisations and governments that claim to work towards preventing a greater than two-degree rise in average global temperatures. This is a gauntlet that sorely needed to be thrown. Among the country exhibitions at the talks, only the USA was brave enough to promote nuclear energy as a climate solution, and then partly in the context of advanced (i.e. not yet commercially available) technology. This in France which acquires about 75% of its electricity from nuclear and which has almost completely decarbonised electricity supply as a result.
The depressing fact of the matter is that fear of the reaction against nuclear energy has become so great that countries would prefer not to openly acknowledge the CO2 reducing potential of the technology, even when the fate of the climate may, in part, rest upon it. This culture of silence from those who claim to represent our collective interests is deeply disturbing. Nuclear may supply only 11% of current global electricity generation but it is more than either wind or solar provides. Gas and coal still account for the majority of electricity production worldwide, with coal still providing about 40%. Someone needed to point out that the low-carbon energy emperor is still not wearing any clothes.
Predictably the climate scientists inspired a negative response in some quarters, with an article in particular by Joe Romm garnering a lot of attention on social media. Romm claims that nuclear energy can play at best only a minor role in preventing climate change because of its economics. He goes further than this, attempting to undermine the credibility of the scientists based on what he seems to think is their envisioned projected nuclear growth rate, and for what he sees as blaming environmentalists for holding nuclear energy back. Romm dismissively describes the climate scientists’ arguments as “handwaving”. While he is not all negative on nuclear, you certainly get the sense that he’s not exactly keen to see industry prospects improve.
Several individuals (notably David Gattie and Ben Heard) have already responded to Romm and done a thorough job in refuting his major contentions and perhaps more importantly challenging his attitude. I won’t try to duplicate this but will instead offer my own perspective – that of a nuclear industry insider – on some of the points Romm raises.
For starters I share Romm’s reaction that a build rate of 115 reactors per year seems… let’s say optimistic. It would certainly require a massive ramp-up of construction rates, plus many more countries developing nuclear energy than do so currently. This is a very long way from where we are now, but that is precisely the point. We need to see this kind of dramatic change in mentality occur globally if we are going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of preventing runaway climate change. This goes not only for nuclear but all low-carbon technology. Does Romm think that ramping up renewable capacity additions to meet a ‘100% renewable’ vision is somehow more achievable than for nuclear? This would obviously require a massive expansion of supply chains and build rates. Of course it is not impossible if countries and companies invest in it, but then again the same is true for nuclear energy.
A concerted, supportive effort is needed to enable nuclear energy expansion, just as has been achieved with many renewables. This requires the nuclear industry to improve its performance, but even more importantly it requires the commitment of governments and supporting institutions. At the moment there is hardly a level playing field. The deck is clearly stacked against nuclear. There are many Western countries which maintain outright bans against developing nuclear energy on what can only be described as purely ideological grounds. They often try and inflict these views on others. The trade of nuclear technologies and materials internationally is highly restricted and subjected to onerous requirements, which rather puts a dampener on reactor growth prospects. As mentioned above, the culture of silence on nuclear means that even many countries/regions which boast proud nuclear histories will exclude almost any mention of it from high-level policy documents and it is often excluded from the financial support mechanisms open to other low-carbon energy sources.
I would note here that the 115 reactors per year scenario which Romm attacks seems mainly intended for illustrative purposes. Hansen et al were demonstrating what it would take for nuclear energy alone to completely decarbonise global electricity. Interestingly, no one I know actually supports this idea. The OECD doesn’t and the World Nuclear Association (where I work) certainly doesn’t. The World Nuclear Association’s vision for the future of electricity is a mix of low-carbon technologies, with nuclear energy operating in harmony with other sources and the environment. To be even reasonably on track towards a less-than two degree target, we believe that nuclear energy needs to supply at least 25% of global electricity, a figure that requires roughly 1000 GWe of new nuclear to be constructed by 2050 (depending on other factors like reactor retirements, electricity demand growth etc). This is clearly very ‘technically’ achievable.
Far from being nuclear zealots, what Hansen et al actually say in their editorial is that “We urge an all-of-the-above approach that includes increased investment in renewables combined with an accelerated deployment of new nuclear reactors”. I completely agree with this.
Costly mistakes – and how to avoid them
Yes, nuclear capital upfront costs (per kilowatt) appear high, but it seems to me that the bigger issue lies with people’s willingness to pay as well as their tendency to get shocked by large upfront numbers, to quickly forget about the past (i.e. previous energy shocks) and to favour short-term returns over long-term ones especially in ‘deregulated’ energy markets.
Let’s remember that consumer energy bills reflect the cost of the entire energy system rather than individual generating units. So sure, the costs of wind and solar may be falling but how much extra consumer value does this create? We now know that large amounts of insufficiently planned, subsidised intermittent renewable generation plays havoc with markets. It drives down the spot price (although not necessarily the consumer price) sometimes even making it negative when there is a lot of wind and sun, but it drives up the price at other time as dispatchable generators still need to cover fixed costs. Of course some marginal dispatchable generators are driven to closure, leading to concerns over system reliability since the intermittent generation can’t be counted on.
This is not to criticise either wind or solar, but it does underscore the need for the right policies to ensure the resilience and affordability of the overall energy system. This is best achieved by a balanced mix of low-carbon energy options. One which maximises the benefits of individual energy technologies, while minimising their disadvantages. For a really good discussion of the challenges facing renewable economics I would point readers to a two part essay written by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins – here and here. Put simply, nuclear is not the only energy technology to face serious economic challenges.
And yes, to be absolutely clear and transparent about it, new nuclear also faces considerable economic challenges. Cost and schedule overruns in new reactor projects especially in Western Europe and the USA have been well and oft reported. However, there are reasons to be optimistic that the industry can learn from mistakes in these projects (and of decades past). Both of these regions have recently emerged from a lengthy hiatus in reactor construction. We need to see, and should expect to see, future costs reductions as first-of-a-kind issues for new reactor designs are overcome. This of course can only happen if these regions keep building nuclear. It surely won’t if they stop.
Cost escalation in previous national reactor programmes is not some kind of immutable law of nuclear construction but rather a symptom of other factors. The drivers of nuclear construction economics are many and worthy of their own post. They consists of things such as worker skills and availability, supply chain qualification and diversity, materials costs, reactor design, licensing and regulatory approach, contract structuring, policy framework, financing options – to name just a few. It is naive to suggest that environmentalist opposition – which has often caused plants to be delayed, cancelled and also led to increasing amounts of regulatory and policy risk – does not negatively affect some of these. While it can be hard to objectively quantify the cost and schedule increase caused by organised opposition, we can be reasonably assured that it exists since it is the (cynical) reason that many such actions are undertaken in the first place.
Note, at no point do Hansen et al blame environmental groups for all of the problems facing nuclear, as Romm implies: they simply ask for these groups to drop their blanket opposition. It seems pretty obvious to me that this would indeed help both in getting project approvals and controlling costs.
At this point some readers will probably have realised that I have neglected to mention energy storage – particularly extensive/grid-scale scale battery storage. Romm includes this in the list of technologies which have undergone “stunning price drops” and which are in “competition” to nuclear. Well, when such energy storage is a genuinely economically feasible option I will mention it. I will mention it alongside words like – “wow, don’t batteries really help to smooth the peaks and troughs of energy demand, facilitating even better integration of high-levels of nuclear energy and renewables.” I feel pretty confident that this is what I will say, given that it is how I feel towards hydro-power today, which performs very much the same function. In the absence of this demonstrated feasibility Romm is really just making a ‘hand waving’ argument of his own, and a short-sighted one at that. Author Will Boisvert examines some common assumed fallacies about energy storage in this exceptional piece.
What Romm gets wrong
Romm’s major error is that he mistakes stumbling points for insurmountable barriers. In common with anti-nuclear activists he seeks only to highlight problems instead of canvassing how they might efficiently be addressed. He allows this pervasive nuclear negativity to colour his reading of resources and events. Both the IEA’s Nuclear Technology Roadmap and Sweden’s nuclear build history highlight how the nuclear industry can be successfully expanded, not why it should be downplayed and ignored.
His economic arguments place far too much emphasis on the Western countries which have experienced recent difficulty with nuclear projects and not enough on the places where nuclear projects are proceeding well. Most additions in electricity generating capacity will continue to happen in Asia and other growing economies. Asian countries, (especially China, South Korea and Japan) have demonstrated the capability of delivering reactor projects to cost and budget. Three things need to be said about this.
- Most nuclear growth is expected to happen in these regions which therefore boosts the viability of projects.
- There are things which can be learned here by Western countries/companies to get their construction costs down, and
- The market environment and policies in many of these developing economies clearly favour nuclear construction. A large part of the overall costs of nuclear comes down to financing, which is influenced by market structure. If Western countries want nuclear to be cheaper they need to introduce the right market frameworks and policies as a starting point – and commit to a series programme rather than single units here and there.
Yet another fallacy – nuclear energy is not ‘highly subsidised’ as Romm claims. In fact most operating nuclear plants are heavily taxed and still manage to generate substantial financial benefits for local communities as I have previously expanded on in detail (link, link). New nuclear plants will likely require support in deregulated markets, but as we can see with the published UK strike prices, it still sits low in the list of low-carbon options.
The bottom line is that if we really want to decarbonise energy supply and successfully limit climate change then nuclear has to help balance the energy mix. It is an important part of the solution.
Nuclear energy is already a competitive low-carbon energy option, especially when considered from the vantage of the overall energy system. This means that like other low-carbon technologies it needs policy support in deregulated markets.
Let’s face it however. We would all like to see nuclear energy be cheaper and new reactors built more quickly, with less fuss. We need to refocus the nuclear debate on how best to achieve this, rather than repeatedly lament to the occasions where we haven’t managed to.