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Nuclear power’s economic failure – a ”renaissance in reverse”

China is said to be the industry’s shining light but nuclear growth is modest ‒ an average of 2.1 reactor construction starts per year over the past decade.

Moreover, nuclear growth in China is negligible compared to renewables ‒ 2 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power capacity were added in 2020 compared to 135 GW of renewables.

Nuclear power’s economic failure, Ecologist, Dr Jim Green, 13th December 2021
 A new report from Friends of the Earth Australia details the catastrophic cost overruns with nuclear power projects.

Despite the abundance of evidence that nuclear power is economically uncompetitive compared to renewables, the nuclear industry and some of its supporters continue to claim otherwise.

Those claims are typically based on implausible cost projections for non-existent reactor concepts. Moreover, the nuclear lobby’s claims about the cost of renewables are just as ridiculous.

Claims about ‘cheap’ nuclear power certainly don’t consider the real-world nuclear construction projects detailed in a new report by Friends of the Earth Australia.

Every power reactor construction project in Western Europe and the US over the past decade has been a disaster.

The V.C. Summer project in South Carolina (two AP1000 reactors) was abandoned after the expenditure of at least US$9 billion leading Westinghouse to file for bankruptcy in 2017.

Criminal investigations

Criminal investigations and prosecutions related to the V.C. Summer project are ongoing ‒ and bailout programs to prolong operation of ageing reactors in the US are also mired in corruption.

The only remaining reactor construction project in the US is the Vogtle project in Georgia (two AP1000 reactors). The current cost estimate of US$27-30+ billion is twice the estimate when construction began (US$14-15.5 billion).

Costs continue to increase and the Vogtle project only survives because of multi-billion-dollar taxpayer bailouts. The project is six years behind schedule…..

In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build an AP1000 reactor for as little as US$1.4 billion, 10 times lower than the current estimate for Vogtle.

The Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee began operation in 2016, 43 years after construction began. When construction resumed in 2008 after a long hiatus, the cost estimate to complete the reactor was US$2.5 billion but the final completion cost was US$4.7 billion.

US nuclear renaissance in reverse

The previous reactor start-up in the US was Watts Bar 1, completed 20 years earlier (1996) after a 23-year construction period. Thus Watts Bar 1 and 2 are the only power reactor start-ups in the US over the past quarter-century.

In 2021, TVA abandoned the unfinished Bellefonte nuclear plant in Alabama, 47 years after construction began and following the expenditure of an estimated US$5.8 billion.

There have been no other power reactor construction projects in the US over the past 25 years other than those listed above.

Numerous other reactor projects were abandoned before construction began, some following the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. Twelve reactors have been permanently shut down over the past decade with many more closures in the pipeline.

Western Europe

The only current reactor construction project in France is one EPR reactor under construction at Flamanville. The current cost estimate of €19.1 billion is 5.8 times greater than the original estimate.

The Flamanville reactor is 10 years behind schedule.

The only current reactor construction project in the UK comprises two EPR reactors under construction at Hinkley Point. In the late 2000s, the estimated construction cost for one EPR reactor in the UK was £2 billion.

The current cost estimate for two EPR reactors at Hinkley Point is £22-23 billion, over five times greater than the initial estimate.

In 2007, EDF boasted that Britons would be using electricity from an EPR reactor at Hinkley Point to cook their Christmas turkeys in 2017, but construction didn’t even begin until 2018.

Is China a shining light for nuclear power?

One EPR reactor (Olkiluoto-3) is under construction in Finland. The current cost estimate of about €11 billion is 3.7 times greater than the original estimate. Olkiluoto-3 is 13 years behind schedule.

Nuclear power is growing in a few countries, but only barely. China is said to be the industry’s shining light but nuclear growth is modest ‒ an average of 2.1 reactor construction starts per year over the past decade.

Moreover, nuclear growth in China is negligible compared to renewables ‒ 2 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power capacity were added in 2020 compared to 135 GW of renewables.

There were only three power reactor construction starts in Russia in the decade from 2011 to 2020, and only four in India.

Nuclear vs renewables costs

Western Europe and the US provide the most striking examples of a more generalised problem with nuclear power: alone among energy sources, it becomes more expensive over time, or in other words it has a negative learning curve.

Nuclear power has become far more expensive than renewables and the gap widens every year. Lazard’s October 2021 report on levelised costs of electricity gives these figures (US$ / megawatt-hour (MWh))

Nuclear 131-204

Wind – onshore 26-50

Solar PV – rooftop residential 147-221

Solar PV – rooftop commercial and industrial 67-180

Solar PV – community 59-91

Solar PV – crystalline utility scale 30-41

Solar PV – thin film utility scale 28-37

Solar thermal tower with storage 126-156

Geothermal 56-93

The nuclear cost is comparable to rooftop residential solar PV, but the latter does not require large downstream costs such as transmission from a power plant.

Capital cost comparisons

Lazards provides these capital cost comparisons in its October 2021 report (US$ per kilowatt):

Nuclear 7800-12800

Wind – onshore 1025-1350

Solar PV – rooftop residential 2475-2850

Solar PV – rooftop commercial and industrial 1400-2850

Solar PV – community 1200-1450

Solar PV – crystalline utility scale 800-950

Solar PV – thin film utility scale 800-950

Solar thermal tower with storage 6000-9090

Geothermal 4325-5575

This section goes on to a detailed anaysis of  Small modular reactorsto be published separately on this site.

…………….. The future is renewable, not radioactive

Enthusiasts hope that nuclear power’s cost competitiveness will improve, but in all likelihood it will continue to worsen.

Some nuclear enthusiasts support carbon pricing. That would improve nuclear power’s economics relative to fossil fuels.

But carbon pricing wouldn’t improve nuclear power’s competitiveness relative to renewables.

This Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and the author or a new report on nuclear power’s economic crisis.https://theecologist.org/2021/dec/13/nuclear-powers-economic-failure

December 14, 2021 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, business and costs, politics international, technology

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