ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Nuclear Salesmen in Paris

Wishful Thinking and Economic Realities

M V Ramana (ramana@princeton.edu) is currently with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University. He is a member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace and the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Viking Penguin 2012).

Despite being strongly promoted by pro-nuclear lobbies, nuclear power was not adopted as a general policy to combat global warming in the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris. There are good reasons to expect that as a source of energy, it will only become less important—in particular the high costs of constructing and operating nuclear reactors and rapidly decreasing costs of renewable energy.

One of the panels at the 2015 United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 on climate change in Paris was convened to discuss the role of nuclear power to combat global warming. The call to expand the nuclear power footprint came not only from the various agencies involved in promoting nuclear power, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but also from a group of four climate scientists—James Hansen, Tom Wigley, Ken Caldeira and Kerry Emanuel, who were given special prominence by the nuclear industry and a supportive media. Despite this advocacy, the final document that emerged from the conference does not even mention the word nuclear.

This is not the first time that nuclear energy has been considered in the climate negotiations and dropped. Around the turn of the century there was a concerted but unsuccessful effort to include nuclear power among those that qualify for emission credits under the Clean Development Mechanism adopted as part of the Kyoto Protocol. Things have changed since then—for the worse, at least for those advocating nuclear power.

Nuclear Power in Global Context

In 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, nuclear energy’s share of global electricity generation was about 17%. It has steadily declined since then, reaching below 11% of global electricity generation by 2014. The downward trend is expected to continue. Even the IAEA’s latest projections for nuclear power’s share in 2030 range from 11.3% in its high estimate to 8.6% in its low estimate, with even lower projections for 2050. Going by the mismatch between earlier IAEA projections and actual nuclear construction, the actual figures are expected to be lower.

The reduction in nuclear energy’s share of global electricity generation between 1997 and 2015 is all the more remarkable because it included a decade or more of the nuclear industry claiming that there was a nuclear “renaissance” underway. The demise of the renaissance, despite many governments subsidising the effort, was primarily due to economic realities known for decades—nuclear reactors are expensive to construct, and prone to overruns in cost and time.

Examples abound: the flagship projects in Europe—Olkiluoto (Finland) and Flamanville (France)—and in the United States—Vogtle (Georgia) and V C Summer (South Carolina)—have all shot up in costs. The Flamanville-3 reactor, for example, is now estimated at €10.5 billion, up from €3.2 billion, while Vogtle has gone from $14 billion to around $21 billion. Similar is the case in Russia (Leningrad NPP-2: 133 billion to 244 billion roubles) and India (Kudankulam I&II: Rs 13,171 crores to Rs 22,462 crores). Original construction timelines have also been extended; Olkiluoto’s estimated construction period has tripled from four to 13 years and the reactor is yet to be completed.

Nuclear Costs More

There is no reason to expect things will get better in the future. Historical trends in the United States, which has built more reactors than any other country, and France, which has the highest share of nuclear power in the world, show that nuclear construction costs have typically gone up, not down, as more reactors are built. The European pressurized reactors proposed for constructed at Hinkley Point in the United Kingdom are estimated to cost more than those at Flamanville and Olkiluoto, and the estimated costs of the Russian reactors proposed for Turkey and Bangladesh are higher than for the Kudankulam reactors. 

In the last decade the marginal costs of operating nuclear reactors, especially older ones, have increased to such an extent that in liberalised electricity markets, electric utilities are shutting down old power plants even if they are still licensed by safety regulators to operate without safety hazards for many more years. The list includes at least eight reactors in the United States and four in Sweden. In justifying one of these closure decisions, the Swedish utility, E.On, announced: “there are no prospects of generating financial profitability either in the short or the long term.”

The costs of renewable energy sources has decreased manifold in the last few years. It is the principal alternative to nuclear power, with low carbon emissions. The Wall Street Advisory firm Lazard estimates that generation costs of wind power and utility-scale photovoltaic energy in the United States have declined by 61% and 82% respectively in the last six years—which is about half of the corresponding generation cost of electricity from a new nuclear plant. 

Conclusions

These economic challenges confronting nuclear power adds to the many other well-known problems associated with the technology—the risk of catastrophic accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl, the production of long-lived radioactive waste, and the linkage with nuclear weapons. Despite decades of effort, no new reactor design appears to be able to deal with all of these problems simultaneously.

In their opinion piece in The Guardian, the four climate scientists posited: “The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking”. If only they, and others who cling to the hope that nuclear power will magically resolve the climate problem, were to adopt the same rule!

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