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More Nukes

November 7th, 2009 at 9:07 am David Frum | 16 Comments |

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We’ve got a lively debate going on the economics of nuclear power.

It began with Brad Plumer and Matt Yglesias arguing that it’s surprising that conservatives like nuclear power, when nuclear requires so much help from government.

I answered here that the conservative view is not at all surprising. If we are to reduce the use of coal to generate power, we’re going to need huge amounts of new electricity from alternative sources. North America’s resources of hydropower are mostly tapped out (the big exceptions – the Nelson River system in northern Manitoba and the rivers of the Canadian Arctic are remote and prohibitively expensive). High-tech conservation (smart meters, etc.) can make a difference at the margin, but cannot begin to replace 50% of all U.S. power – which is what coal provides.

Nuclear stands out as the only hope because it is so much cheaper and more reliable than wind and solar, never mind the boutique sources: biomass, etc.

The rule of thumb I hear when I talk to industry folks is this: the cost of producing electricity runs approximately as follows

Coal: 3 cents per kilowatt hour.

Nuclear: 5 cents.

Natural gas: 5 cents.

Wind: 8-10 cents.

Solar: 15-20 cents.

Windpower is sometimes described as competitive – but that’s only after the various tax credits etc. are figured in. These numbers reflect the cost of production.

Caveat: The 3 cent figure for coal averages all coal plants, including those that are half a century old, with their capital costs long since retired. Power from a new coal plant that meets all current environmental regulations costs more, almost as much as nuclear and gas.

On those numbers, a plan to move the country from coal to wind is essentially a plan to double the nation’s electric bill. Include solar and you are quintupling the bill.

Alternative energy advocates promise that the cost of wind and solar will decline in future. This will not happen, and here is why:

The big cost in wind and solar is not the turbine or the solar panel. The prices of turbine and panels could fall to zero, and still wind and solar would cost much more than coal or nuclear. Electricity cannot be stored and it is expensive to move. Cheap power is power that flows at predictable levels and is generated near to its users.

A modern nuclear reactor can generate about 1300 megawatts of electricity. A single nuclear plant with two or three reactors can generate enough power to sustain a fair-sized city – and can be sited as close to the population center as politics permits, so long as there is a body of water nearby for reactor cooling.

A modern wind turbine generates at most 2 megawatts. To equal a single reactor you’d need 650 turbines – probably many more, since they are so unreliable. Now think of the cost of the land assembly to support this vast array of machines. Next – think about the wiring required to connect them to a grid. Finally – think of the cost of moving that power across the country, because wind blows strongest in places like west Texas and the Dakotas, about as far as you can get from the nation’s big consumer markets. It’s the wiring that makes wind so costly, and that cost is not going to be reduced anytime soon by technological improvements.

Solar of course confronts this problem in even more radical form. The basic solar panel we’ve all seen emits only about 120 watts. You’d need acres of them to equal even the output of a wind turbine. And again, the sun shines brightest where people don’t live.

Like coal, nuclear runs consistently 24/7/365. In the northern hemisphere, the wind blows strongest when electricity use is lowest: at night and in the winter. So wind must be backed up by an array of gas turbines – and that kind of backup is again very expensive.

Without massive government subsidies, wind would find no place in the power mix. (Solar finds no place even with massive government subsidies.)

Nuclear by contrast stands as the next cheapest alternative to coal for large-scale electricity production. Yes it costs more than coal. If we’re willing to keep burning coal, then there’s no need for nuclear. But if you want to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases – without a shocking hit to the American standard of living – nuclear is the only currently feasible substitute.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • sinz54

    Here’s my challenge to the enviromentalist activists:

    Will you support the paving over of some 10,000 square miles of fragile desert ecosystem with solar panels, to generate enough power for the United States? Or will you do everything in your power to block it?

    Where do we put the solar panels needed to power New York City, Boston, Chicago, and other cities with high-rise skyscrapers and electric subways?

  • Stewardship

    Mitsubishi is supposedly developing a smaller nuclear plant…appropriate to power a small city or or subdivision. An industrialist friend is trying to figure out a way to acquire one of the soon to be decommissioned nuclear subs, dock it along the Lake Michigan coast, and use it to power his plant. Thinking out of the box….

  • Churl

    No need to fool with a decomissioned sub. Russia is already building floating nuclear power plants to serve remote areas. Buy one of these:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_floating_nuclear_power_station

    http://www.barentsobserver.com/floating-nuclear-power-plant-ready-in-2012.4582216-16334.html

  • JohnMcC

    Environmental concerns are a valid counter-weight to power generating plants. And vice versa. A reasonable person would want the most of both. And the future may well show that massive electrical generating plants are less necessary than they have been in the past. As I pointed out in Mr Frum’s earlier nuclear posting, modern photovoltaic and solar water heating technology has made it completely practical for individuals to produce a significant part of their own power.

    It should be pretty obvious that no one in Florida, for example, needs to use many kilowatts to heat bath water, for example. The time will soon arrive when paint can generate voltage. This is not hippie, Mother Earth News eccentricity.

    Large generating plant, many of them Nukes, and the ‘Grid’ as we know it will of course continue to be necessary. But decentralized power generation widely dispersed changes the calculation of environment vs huge generators. So the answer to Mr Sinz’s question is that concentrating p-v into a single generator being unnecessary, no–paving over fragile desert would be stupid.

  • JJWFromME

    “The basic solar panel we’ve all seen emits only about 120 watts. ”

    A serious discussion would include solar thermal power:

    http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/04/14/solar_electric_thermal/print.html

  • Nuke Me, Nuke Me My Friend, Nuke Me, Nuke Me Again « Around The Sphere

    [...] Frum: The rule of thumb I hear when I talk to industry folks is this: the cost of producing electricity [...]

  • sinz54

    JohnMcC: So the answer to Mr Sinz’s question is that concentrating p-v into a single generator being unnecessary, no–paving over fragile desert would be stupid.
    I specifically mentioned New York City, Boston, and Chicago. Not Florida or New Mexico, where direct high insolation is available most days. Where do you get the power for the Empire State Building or to power New York’s huge subway system?

    I live in the Boston area. Around the winter solstice, we only get 7 hours of daylight–and most of the time, it’s overcast and gloomy. Or it’s snowing.

    Solar energy just doesn’t work in the Northeast, except to perhaps heat individual homes on days when the sun is shining. Not for America’s greatest cities.

    So to power Northeastern cities and Seattle, the solar panels have to be cited elsewhere. Huge numbers of them.

  • Kevin B

    I’m not opposed to using nuclear energy. I think it will be even more expensive than predicted because of the added regulation required for individual safety and national security.

    But I’m excited about the possibility of generating some or all of my home energy needs using solar, wind, and geothermal. If I’m producing more than I need, I can feed it back into the grid, but wouldn’t it be cooler to use the excess to generate hydrogen (from grey water, perhaps), and store it in my home’s or car’s fuel cell?

  • JJWFromME

    Yeah, I think this Joe Romm piece pretty much blows you out of the water:

    http://climateprogress.org/2009/11/07/david-frum-conservatives-heart-nuke-power/

    Don’t you have researchers over at AEI to find this stuff out for you? It would be much better use of your funds than all this culture war-based “research”, etc.

  • JohnMcC

    Ah, Mr Sinz, please refer to my (reluctant and recent) endorsement of Nukes. It was not topical when I wrote (and I guard against my inclination to run long) but the Rob’t Kennedy opposition to the Cape Cod wind-farm was very aggravating to me. I understand that an American Indian Tribe is also in opposition to turbines on the Mass coast.

    You are of course correct that NYCity and other northern latitude metropolises (metropoli?) will require huge and growing electrical energy that they cannot provide themselves no matter how decentralized the technology becomes. No argument about what I guess is your larger point–that sacrifices have to be made. But my point about the changing nature of power generation being a game-changer also remains. Even accepting your figure of 10K square miles–which seems excessive btw, those do NOT need to be contiguous miles. Scattering photovoltaic around doesn’t subtract from the power created.

  • SFTor1

    I’m in the solar business. In California and some other states where the subsidies are high enough solar is competitive with the basic cost of electricity. It is a good supplement, especially for people with high energy bills. In San Francisco businesses can do well with it too.

    For large-scale power generation nuclear seems to be at least a temporary solution (50 years or so). The French seem to be doing well with nuclear power. Operators need to stay sober, however, and security regulations need to be strict.

  • mdjoey

    Nuclear power is feasable, and will both clean up the air and reduce dependency on foreign oil. If washington is hell-bent on throwing money at energy, which way do we want to spend our money? Cap and trade will raise the price of electricity in our country, will result in increased taxes and force jobs to migrate to countries where electric power is cheaper. By spending money to reduce domestic emissions, whatever carbon saved in North America will simply be emitted by China and India as they put up more coal plants to power the factories and jobs that will emigrate from the US.

    Use the same money to subsidize nuclear plants, strengthen the electric grid and watch dirty old plants fade into the sunset. With a more robust and reliable well powered electric grid, more plug-in electric vehicles can hit the roads. Nuclear sourced energy should pay for itself in reduction of payments to OPEC. We’ve given them 1.9 trillion dollars from 2004-08 according to the US dept of energy. We could buy a lot of nuclear power with this kind of money, and also stem the outflow of jobs to countries with cheaper power costs while we keep some of our dollars at home.

  • sinz54

    Eleven sites for nuclear reactors announced as part of UK energy strategy that includes ‘clean coal’ and wind power
    Ed Miliband paves way for most ambitious fleet of nuclear reactors in Europe

    Eleven sites for nuclear reactors announced as part of UK energy strategy that includes ‘clean coal’ and wind power

    * Adam Vaughan
    * guardian.co.uk, Monday 9 November 2009 17.01 GMT

    A new fleet of nuclear power stations was today backed by the energy secretary, Ed Miliband, as he outlined the UK government’s plans to fast-track major energy infrastructure projects, also including “clean coal” power stations and windfarms.

    Six draft “national policy statements” would secure the UK’s energy supply as ageing plants close, reduce carbon emissions in generating power and create jobs, he said. He also called for an overhaul of the planning system to encourage new low-carbon energy developments.

    A programme of up to four commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstrations, including both pre-combustion and post-combustion capture technologies, will be funded by a new CCS Incentive. However, Miliband admitted that only two of the demonstration projects – those from Scottish Power and E.ON – are currently proceeding to the next stage of the CCS competition.

    The draft policies covered:

    • overarching energy policy

    • coal and carbon capture and storage

    • nuclear power

    • renewable energy

    • gas supply and storage

    • electricity transmission and grid

    The new nuclear power plants are scheduled to begin operating within the next decade, paving the way for the most ambitious fleet of new nuclear reactors in Europe. The 11th site, Dungeness, was turned down because of the “adverse effect” it could have on the unique local ecosystem identified by Natural England, Miliband said. The government also turned down three other sites not on the original list: Kingsnorth in Kent, Owston Ferry in South Yorkshire and Druridge Bay in Northumberland.

  • envirogy

    Indeed Nuclear is the only option. But the problem lies in cost overruns and delays. Also the inability of having a safe disposal method provides people with some sense of reservation. But the options are dwindling in a pragmatic sort of way. Yes people suggest that renewables, coupled with a ‘smart’ grid will be able to supply all our energy by 2030 but who are they kidding? It’s absolutly vital that nuclear be part of any nations future energy mix. Why do you think that china and japan are building these things so quickly? Two nations that have made some pretty steep suggestions in the amount of Co2 they want to curb realize that nuclear will be the back-bone of a new energy mix. So why is America/Canada so far behind? To much regulation perhaps? not enough central planning? too much privatization? http://envirogy.wordpress.com

  • climateguy

    When Joe Romm posts about nuclear power these days, he refers to Craig Severance as the authority on cost. If you read the Severance tome Romm touts, i.e. “Business Risks and Costs of Nuclear Power” you’ll see Severance refer to the M.I.T. study “The Future of Nuclear Power” which he quotes from to say “nuclear power is not an economically competitive choice”. When you see Severance quote the M.I.T. study you might think he is interested in this very authoritative assessment of facts, but if you read the M.I.T. study you find that Severance has ignored the cost estimate M.I.T. published, which was updated as of 2009 and is 8-9 cents kWhr. Instead, Severance comes up with his own estimate, which is more than triple the M.I.T. figure, and blithely says 25 – 30 cents a kWhr. The M.I.T. conclusion, i.e. that nuclear is not competitive, is the result of their comparison of nuclear to fossil fuel generators that are allowed to emit CO2 for free. As Severance and Romm both call for a price to be put on carbon emissions, it is hard to see what use either would have for a conclusion from a study comparing nuclear generators to fossil fuel generators allowed to emit for free. Romm loves to quote Severance and the 25 – 30 cent figure. Romm’s case against Frum’s support for nuclear is that Frum can’t be using his brain when it comes to assessing nuclear power, because Frum doesn’t believe people like Romm and Severance when they say that nuclear will cost 25 – 30 cents a kWhr, if Frum pays any attention to Romm and Severance at all, or because Frum must be too stupid to understand that nuclear costs too much. It isn’t a strong case.

    You have to understand the ways utilities do their accounting if you want to get a handle on estimates for the cost of nuclear power. Unless you know exactly what is being included in a published figure, such as a media report about a huge cost for a plant, or per installed kWhr capacity, you may not fully understand what is going on. For instance one recent report from Ontario was reported to have included the fuel cost for the expected 40 year lifetime of the plant. I don’t claim to understand everything that is in a detailed analysis of the cost of a nuclear plant, which is why I seek out reports like The Future of Nuclear POwer from M.I.T. What M.I.T. did was publish “levelized” cost estimates for various baseload power technologies, i.e. coal, gas, and nuclear. They define “levelize” as “the most common basis used for comparing the cost of power from competing technologies”. They had a distinguished panel review and approve the method and conclusion. As of 2009, M.I.T. states gas without carbon capture costs 6 – 7 cents a kWhr, coal without carbon capture costs 6 – 7 cents a kWhr, and new nuclear installations can be expected to produce power for 8 – 9 cents a kWhr.

    Now I am a former leading voice in the British Columbia Green Party (during the late 1980s and early 1990s) and when I was in the party, I wrote the climate policy to say we should return the composition of the atmosphere to the preindustrial composition, which was 280 ppm CO2. This is to say I am not a Republican, and although I am interested in conserving the planetary life support system, I would not fit into anyone’s definition as a political conservative. It seems to me that most political conservatives have no idea what conservation means. I am giving nuclear power a serious examination as I believe that the climate problem is a far greater threat than anything I’ve read so far about nuclear waste. I agree with Stephen Chu who said at his Senate confirmation hearing that “we should look at nuclear with new eyes”. The strongest argument I have seen so far against nuclear power is the danger of weapons proliferation.

  • climateguy

    One prominent “alternate energy advocate” with not much good to say about nuclear power is Al Gore. Let me start this by saying I admire the work Gore has done and is doing. Several decades ago I had my own mini-Gore show, before Gore. I toured around British Columbia and Canada trying to raise awareness about the threat of climate change. I despaired after years of this, feeling I had had no impact. I’m glad Gore has had the impact he has had. However, I am reexamining my views on nuclear power and so I have a critique of the chapter 8, The Nuclear Option, in Gore’s new book, “Our Choice”.

    Part of one basic point Gore makes, which he uses what he calls the “massive” M.I.T. The Future of Nuclear Power study to support, is that “nuclear power faces stagnation and decline” as an industry. The point continues as the chapter unfolds and Gore points to one principal reason as high cost. I was surprised to see him go to this M.I.T. report. It assessed the levelized cost of new nuclear power to be 8 – 9 cents a kWhr as of 2009.

    Compare this figure to the levelized 12.8 – 16.7 cents kWhr for the Desertec concept which would supply Saharan North Africa and Middle East solar power to Europe which Gore touts and illustrates later on in the book. The Desertec concept is to sell into the EU grid when the price is highest, whereas nuclear is baseload.

    Whatever. As the chapter continues, Gore explains that nuclear is too high cost, that’s why “the experts at M.I.T.” as he calls them wrote that the industry “faces stagnation and decline.” Gore does not bring up the cost in cents per kWhr for nuclear anywhere in the chapter.

    We are told that “in the popular imagination, the blame for all the problems of the nuclear industry is often assigned to two factors”, i.e. one, the combined effect of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and two, radioactive waste. If we think this, Gore tells us, we are wrong.

    One “real cause”, (the other being the problem of nuclear proliferation) is, according to Gore, the “grossly unacceptable economics” of the industry. For proof of this, Gore refers us to Forbes magazine no less, which in 1985 did publish an article by James Cook saying this: “For the United States, nuclear power is dead – dead in the near term as a hedge against rising oil prices and dead in the long term as a souce of future energy. Nobody really disputes that.”

    But if you read that Forbes article, you see a different view than what Gore has.

    Gore does include the essence of what Cook wrote for Forbes in his quote: “The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history…”. But Gore wants us to believe that nuclear power per se, not just nuclear power in the United States, is not going anywhere, and is not going to go anywhere. Gore wants us to suspect the technology itself is too expensive.

    But Cook, writing in that very same Forbes article, does not agree. He writes about success everywhere else: “why did the US fail where the French, Germans, and Japanese succeeded?”.

    For the reason, Cook quoted Commonwealth Edison’s Chairman James O’Connor saying: “American engineering, American equipment, American constructors are building plants all over the world and bringing them in at roughly one-quarter to one-third the cost of plants in the U.S. We can do it technically. We have to learn to do it institutionally, rationalizing the process to eliminate the adversarial system that we have presently”.

    But Cook found himself writing that when they tried to build in the U.S. they blew it, time after time, so many times he was now pronouncing that the entire industry was dead.

    Cook: “The bungling the industry was capable of boggles the mind. In the Zimmer [reactor] control room, according to a study for the Ohio PUC, the control panel would catch fire when the alarm nodule lights went on close together, so that in an emergency the panel would have knocked itself out and the staff would have been unable to control the plant. But nobody worried about that. Many of the lights had burned out, and the staff had unplugged others to decrease the risk of fire. ”

    Cook: “The ineptitude had no pattern, and virtually anything could go wrong, and did…. How could Bechtel have installed the reactor backwards at San Onofre? How could Brown and Root have got the reactor supports 45 degrees out of what at Comanche Peak? … How could the NRC itself approve designs for the Mark II reactor when what Grand Gulf was building was a Mark III?”

    Gore uses the Forbes article to get the “nuclear power is dead” line, and then casts aspersions on nuclear in the rest of the world by attacking the French program: “France… is often cited as a nuclear power success story….” but Gore says: “almost entirely owned by the government”, with a “degree of government subsidy [that] is difficult to ascertain”, and it is “apparently facing serious financial difficulties”.

    In contrast, the view from Forbes: “US nuclear power is at an end. Elsewhere in the world, some 148 nuclear plants are under construction, 9 more on order, and 157 in the planning stage. By 1990 the Japanese should be getting close to 20% of their electricity production from nuclear power, the Taiwanese 30%, the Belgians 40%, the French 55%. That’s low-cost energy, all of it, and according to one study, 30% – 50% lower in cost than coal. The newest French plant… produces power for under 4 cents a kilowatt-hour, and that’s cheap by almost any standard.”

    So what did Forbes publish about Gore’s view that it was high cost that sunk nuclear power, not the aftermath of the events at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? Cook, published in Forbes: “Of all the woes that descended on the U.S. nuclear industry beginning in 1978 – high inflation, high interest rates, slackening demand – none was to prove more traumatic that the accident at Three Mile Island”.

    I mean, Gore dug up this article. I can’t help it if it completely disagrees with him.

    It seems nuclear power does face challenges in the US. The whole US industry has a past it needs to learn from. Given the recent events emanating from Wall Street, and the very adversarial stance the Republican Party is now taking in Congress, one wonders if there isn’t something for US society to learn from the past experience of the nuclear industry. Others are building reactors successfully today. The M.I.T. study did note that it has been the recent Japanese and Korean experience that costs do come down as more reactors are built, for them at any rate.

    When “alternate energy” people say the US can’t do nuclear, one wonders why they think the US can do anything at all.

    I guess its been a long time since part of the American spirit was said to be “can do”. Faced with the threat of climate change this spirit is what has to come back. It isn’t good enough to argue as Gore has, trying to get people to believe that where the US has failed others didn’t succeed, and because the US failed in the past, no one now can succeed.