The nuclear distraction

December 18, 2015

Advocates insist that sustaining and expanding nuclear power is essential for climate protection. Yet intractably, inexorably, the global nuclear enterprise continues its slow-motion decline for lack of a business case. Nuclear power produced 9 percent less electricity in 2014 than at its 2006 peak. Its share of global electricity generation peaked at 17.6 percent in 1996, fell to 10.8 percent in 2014, and will keep falling (says the IAEA) as retirements soon outpace additions: Power reactors average 29 years old.

Big early programs in the United States, France, South Korea, Germany, and Japan are in decline. Ambi­tions are slowly fading in orders’ last bastion—China’s, Russia’s, and India’s centrally planned power sys­tems. Most units being built are late. Newcomers face huge challenges; Russia’s sales are outrunning its financial capacity.  Financial distress stalks the industry. Probably no firm has ever made money selling reactors.

Over three billion people now make more renewable energy, excluding hydro-power, than nuclear elec­tric­­ity, in three of the world’s four biggest economies (China, Germany, Japan), and in Brazil, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain (plus Britain if its modest hydropower were included). Over half the world’s new generating capacity is re­new­­able, with the majority in developing countries. Wind capacity additions in 2000 to 2014 were 18 times nuclear additions, photovoltaic solar nine times. In each of the past four years, modern renewables added over 80 gigawatts of global capacity, versus nuclear’s several gigawatts, representing a quarter-trillion dollars of voluntary private investment versus nuclear’s approximately zero. The electricity system now disruptively emerging is efficient, market-driven, distributed, and renewable. Nuclear is the opposite. Game over.

New nuclear plants’ “unlearning curve”—ever-higher real construction costs and slower construction—persists from Britain, France, and America to India, Bangladesh, and Turkey. Promised fixes aren’t working. New US or UK nuclear electricity will cost approximately 9 cents to 15+ cents per kilowatt-hour (wholesale price, levelized and in 2014 dollars). As aging plants need more repairs, US reactors’ average operating costs have risen to around four cents per kilowatt-hour. In contrast, new windpower’s market price averages 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, and utility-scale photovoltaic power averages 4.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, net of expired or expiring renewable subsidies smaller than nuclear power’s mainly permanent ones.

Thus in today’s competitive landscape, with or without carbon pricing, new nuclear electricity costs several-fold more than wind or photovoltaic electricity, and many times more than waste-heat cogeneration or end-use efficiency. New nuclear power would therefore save far less carbon per dollar than these equally carbon-free competi­tors, so it would actually reduce and retard climate protection.

Startlingly, closing an existing uncompetitive US reactor and reinvesting its saved operating costs (averaging over six cents per kilowatt-hour for the 25 highest-cost units) in energy efficiency (at utilities’ average two- to three-cent per kilowatt-hour cost) would save two to three kilowatt-hours for each nuclear kilowatt-hour not generated. This swap, which state regulators could require, would cut carbon dioxide emissions one to two times as much as closing a coal plant. Both kinds of closure would thus speed climate protection.

As this climate perversity becomes evident, nuclear advocates fall back on two mystical claims: that “baseload” (by which they mean big thermal) power stations are needed to keep the lights on despite the variability of photovoltaic and wind power, and that renewables can’t grow much without cheap bulk storage of electricity. These linked claims lack foundation. More than 15 sophisticated stud­ies—in the United States for centralized renewables or half-distributed renewables, and in Europe and China—show that largely or wholly renewable electricity can sustain reliability and improve resilience at reasonable cost with little or no bulk storage. Eighty-percent-renewable US electricity by 2050 costs the same  as business-as-usual, even at renewable costs far above today’s.

Or if you don’t believe the models, consider the data. Four EU countries not rich in hydropower got half their 2014 electricity use from renewables (Spain 46 percent, Scotland 50 percent, Denmark 59 percent, and Portugal 64 percent) without increasing bulk storage or reducing reliability. Italy achieved 33 percent, as Germany is expected to do in 2015 (when the former East German utility 50Hertz is already about 46 percent variable-renewable). These countries’ grids work as a conductor leads a symphony orchestra: No instrument plays all the time, but the ensemble continuously produces beautiful music.

Empirical evidence also disproves claims that nuclear power deploys faster than renewables. From 1997, the year of the Kyōto Protocol, through 2014, world nuclear output rose 147 terawatt-hours per year, photovoltaics 185, and wind power 694. In 2013 alone, China added more photovoltaic capacity than the US had added since developing photovoltaics 59 years earlier. For the past three years, China has produced more wind power than nuclear power, as has India for the past two. In 2014, China was building nearly two-fifths of the world’s new reactors, yet invested nine times more in renewables.

Every energy technology has issues. Ground-mounted photovoltaics and nuclear power both use about the same amount of land—far more than wind power, which if run or sited poorly can kill modest numbers of birds and bats. Some people consider turbines or solar panels ugly; some dislike nuclear power’s wastes, risks, and proliferation. Renewables are popular; nuclear power isn’t. Renewables thrive on democracy and free markets, which both shrivel nuclear power. But what­ever your preferences, nuclear power fell hard at the first hurdle—cost—and can’t get up again.

The latest elixir proposed to revive it—small modular reactors—can’t, even if reactor designs rejected decades ago had the magical properties claimed for them. Today’s reactors are big precisely because reactors don’t scale down well. That’s why initial small modular reactors are expected to cost about twice as much per kilowatt. But their proposed mass production, hoped to offset that handicap, must also overcome big reactors’ at least threefold higher electricity price today than small modular renewables, which meanwhile will about double that gap. Do the math. Mass production would need to make small modular reactors roughly twelvefold cheaper. That’s too big for even a thousandfold production scaleup to overcome, even if small modular reactors achieved the learning curve that big reactors have never demonstrated.

Other challenges aside, nuclear power of any kind is so many decades behind in cost and scaling that it can never catch up. Climate imperatives only reinforce the need to invest judi­ciously, not indiscriminately. It’s time to stop diverting more taxpayer billions to the well-intentioned but commercially failed nuclear dream (the decoded meaning of “keeping nuclear power on the table”), and to do what works, makes sense, and makes money. Just follow the first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.