Those who live in Glasshouses…

An article appeared on the Financial Times on Thursday 7th January. It argues that nuclear is the cheapest low carbon electricity source. The article was written by Vincent de Rivaz, CEO of the French owned EDF energy, which plans to build at least four new reactors in Britain at a cost of around £20 billion. In particular, the claim was made that nuclear is the cheapest large-scale low-carbon electricity source.

There can be no question that nuclear generates electricity without releasing any CO2 and that it will continue to do this, and has a role to play in a future lower CO2 world, if not a sustainable world.

As to the claim that it’s the cheapest large-scale low-carbon electricity source; one wonders how this was calculated. It is difficult to compare two generating methodologies, one of whose power is free and whose capital cost is high, with another whose capital cost is high and whose fuel is not free. It has also to be pointed out that the annual operating and maintenance costs of nuclear power are considerably in excess of wind power. Wind turbines switch themselves on and off automatically, having an availability of 97/98%, and apart from the occasional breakdown are subject to annual overhaul once a year.

So the question is how to compare two such systems.

Both nuclear power and wind power stations are long lasting industrial complexes.

With periodic maintenance and the odd replacement of components, I would expect a wind farm to last more or less indefinitely. There are no high temperatures or high pressures which eat into the useful life of all steel components.

A nuclear power plant will last forty years at a stretch. Thereafter it more or less needs a complete refurbishment. Throughout this period the fuel will have been paid for and the staffing of 300 people approximately will be needed to run it.

By contrast an offshore wind fired power station will be in receipt of ROCs (the support regime for twenty years). Thereafter the price can fall away to pretty close to zero. It is no longer in need of a subsidy because the capital cost will have been paid for.

So for twenty years electricity from an offshore wind farm costs in the order of 15 Euro cents a kWhr. After twenty years and for the next eighty years the price can be as low as 4 Euro cents a kWhr.

Throughout this period, including the first twenty year period when it is in receipt of ROCs, the cost of the wind farm will have been static. It will have a risk reducing effect on the volatility of all fossil fuel prices including uranium.

I am not seeking to make the point that nuclear energy is necessarily a bad thing. I do not share the view that just because nuclear leaves a long trail of liabilities behind it when it closes down that it renders nuclear undoable.

I seek to be realistic in my assessment of the relative costs of wind and nuclear. I believe that all forms of low carbon technologies are worthy of consideration and should be deployed. I have never tired of pointing out that the biggest risk facing humanity is global warming. Whatever we need to do, however unpalatable, then we must be prepared to do it.

In saying all this let me be absolutely clear about one thing; wind is by far the cheapest solution. Wind is only in need of support during the period when the capital cost is being amortized. It is by and large a very long lasting piece of equipment. It is not subjected to high temperatures and pressures, its failure mechanisms are mainly fatigue and corrosion. The world has been dealing with corrosion at sea for a very long period of time and I would not anticipate that wind energy would cause too much of a burden in the future.

I see little point in the CEO of a large nuclear supplied generation set-up attacking the newcomer – wind energy. All solutions are necessary so long as they generate electricity without increasing the CO2 burden on the atmosphere.

Fossil U-235 is the oldest of the fossil fuels, probably there since the formation of the earth. How much is around? How much will be left over when China builds thirty new nuclear power stations? What price will U-235 get to? How realistic would it be to base our entire future on nuclear power? When would the waste get reprocessed and for how long? What happens to the decay product plutonium 239 whose half life is 24,000+ years?

One of the reasons why advocates of the nuclear industry should not try to rubbish offshore wind has to do with the old adage, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones”. The nuclear industry is the only one I know of which cannot look after its own trail of liabilities. It cannot be run in the private sector. Governments must undertake to put money to work more or less indefinitely, long after the nuclear power station has closed down.

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4 Responses to Those who live in Glasshouses…

  1. Kingsley Otoide January 19, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Upon reading this piece, I’m left wondering what I can do to help build a platform that might give your voice a greater reach. You and your ilk deserve to be heard loud and clear around the world.

  2. Finbarr Coghlan January 20, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    During my MSc (two years ago), if memory serves me correctly, there was between 75 and 100 years of uranium supplies left at 2006 consumption rates worldwide, depending on which sources you read. Who knows what this figure will become in the future as the rate of uranium usage increases. One thing is for sure, in the grand scheme of things it is a short term solution only.

    Again, if memory serves me correctly the decommissioning of such projects take in the region of 60 to 100 years to complete. The costs are so high that the cost of electricity does not include these figures in its calculation. One then wonders how these costs are factored in at the concept and definition phases of a project.

    I too agree that a combination of low and zero carbon technologies is the way forward but more weighting must be applied to renewables over nuclear.

  3. Pat Behan January 28, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

    In addition to the liabilities associated with a Nuclear facility, there are also vast environmental impacts with regard to the mining of uranium. Uranium exploration requires activities such as clear cutting, surface stripping, trenching, drilling and blasting. Taking rock samples from the earth can disturb uranium ore and release uranium into the biosphere. Once the uranium has been exposed to air and water, its composition changes and radioactive dust particles are then formed which can be distributed by air and water. When drilling occurs during exploration, it can disturb underground uranium deposit’s which can leach into the underground water reservoirs and potentially contaminate drinking water supplies.

    Having said this we still need an energy source that can help us transition to renewable energy on a larger scale. Many argue that Nuclear is the answer to this, and indeed it may have a role, but it should not be viewed as a long term solution. The use of high efficiency power generation, the exploration of hydrogen and clean coal technology could also be accelerated to be used as both transition and back up energy sources while we get our renewable programmes to a point whereby we can truly become green energy economies.

    Without a doubt wind power has a major part to play in the future of energy both nationally and internationally. The Irish government and others should be looking to the likes of Denmark and Samso Island in particular for inspiration on the future of energy generation. Lets hope we see some moves to accelerate the advent of a true green economy in this country.

  4. Jim Hight April 22, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Excellent points, made without excessive bashing of nuclear power’s liabilities.

    The one word missing though is “baseload.” Societies need it, nuclear provides it, wind does not and will not until and unless there are major breakthroughs in energy storage.

    As you say, all forms of carbon-free generation should be deployed because global warming is the greatest risk faced by humankind. But your readers would be more fully informed if you discussed this factor in the wind-vs.-nuclear debate.

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