Greenpeace International recently issued a report titled “The Economics of Nuclear Power” (pdf). The four analysts (commissioned by Greenpeace) pulled cost information from 12 recent studies, analyzed how they differed, and even got into the breakdown and makeup of nuclear’s cost components. They discussed all the different reactor technologies and kept Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear spin to a minimum. Facts are facts and writers should not have to spin facts to bolster their arguments.
With that being said, I have a few problems with the study. There are some contradictions in the report; it is a bit careless with the data; and the authors apparently have not fully thought out their alternative solutions.
Contradictions in the Report
From the press release:
I read the report before I read the press release and from my reading of the report, it does not conclude with the above statement. Here’s what the report concluded (p. 49):
A new report published by a team of international energy and economic experts…conclusively proves that nuclear power is neither a practical nor economically viable solution to tackling climate change.
Hydro electricity and wind energy are expected to deliver the biggest increases in electricity production by 2020 – roughly 2000 TWh in each case, depending on the growth rate in wind. Each of these technologies is expected to deliver electricity at around €40-50/MWh, which is likely to be competitive with nuclear, gas and coal – although this depends on the price of carbon by that time…So based on this conclusion, nuclear is already economically competitive with gas and coal, and hydro and wind will be competitive with nuclear, gas and coal sometime in the future. Did Greenpeace even read the report they commissioned? Apparently not, because the report concluded that nuclear power is currently “economically viable” with fossil fuels. Not the other way around like their press release states.
...from the late 1980s onwards, the nuclear industry worldwide has made strenuous efforts to improve performance. Worldwide, load factors now average more than 80%. The USA has an annual average of about 90% compared to less than 60% in 1980…Hmm. The press release states nuclear plants have “poor reliability” but the report says we have strenuously improved performance. It looks like Greenpeace wrote the press release before the report was even written, then didn’t bother to read what they paid for.
On page 8, the report provides a table on the “Construction time of nuclear power plants worldwide.” The period of reference in the table moves in 6 year increments yet skips the period 1989 – 1994. Oops.
On page 30 is Table 2.2 which compares the cost components of the 12 recent studies of nuclear. But it neglects to indicate the monetary year in which costs are given. Is it in 2005 euros? 2006 euros? 2000 euros? All the studies were released in different years and so when comparing studies, the authors need to adjust the figures for inflation. The chart is meaningless if costs are not adjusted to a common year.
On page 42 and 44 the reader will find that Table 4.1 and 4.2 are actually the same tables with apparently different sources. Oops again.
This is nitpicking on my part but if we’re discussing economics I would make sure my data is impeccable.
Too Much Time Spent on Olkiluoto
Part 3 begins with a three page analysis of the Olkiluoto reactor currently under construction by Areva in Finland. For those who do not know, the reactor is an Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) rated at 1,600 MW. The Olkiluoto project is the first EPR to be constructed, and the U.S. and France are looking to build several more. The reason why it is highlighted in this report (as some of the readers here I’m sure can guess) is that startup has been delayed by about a year and a half.
The 1,600 MW reactor was originally projected to take about 4 years to build. It is now about 1.5 to 2 years behind schedule therefore taking 5-6 years to construct. Considering that it will be the largest reactor in the world when finished and is the first of its kind, I think a 6 year construction period is pretty good compared to nuclear power’s construction history. Let’s wait and see when the plant is finished.
The thing to keep in mind about Olkiluoto is that it is one reactor under construction out of over 500 reactors that have been constructed in the world. And it will not be the last reactor to be built.
Let’s not forget that the nuclear industry isn’t the only industry that experiences delays and cost overruns during construction. For instance, take the Mackenzie gas pipeline which will run from Canada to the U.S.:
Imperial Oil Ltd., the lead partner in the pipeline project, said Monday costs to build the pipeline and a gathering system and develop three anchor fields escalated to $16.2-billion, from $7-billion predicted in 2004. The company also said the startup date for the pipeline will arrive no sooner than 2014, three years later than had been anticipated.Wow, their price for the pipeline more than doubled and the start up date increased by three years. Does this delay mean though we should stop building all gas pipelines because this project is experiencing a construction delay?
What I look forward to most about reading this type of report are the alternative solutions brought forth. “The Economics of Nuclear Power” (pdf) cites another Greenpeace report as the primary source for information about alternatives. That report, entitled “Energy Revolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook” is summarized in Annex C of the Economics report. According to the report:
Renewable Energy will deliver nearly 70% of global electricity supply and 65% of global heat supply by 2050.At the same time the report says the world will be able to cut CO2 emissions by almost 50%. How are they going to do this you ask? P. 57:
The phasing out of nuclear energy and rising electricity demand will be met initially by bringing into operation new highly efficient gas fired combined-cycle power plants…Greenpeace’s plan is to rely on more fossil fuels in order to phase out nuclear energy. But it also plans to reduce emissions by about 50% by 2050. I wonder if they know that gas plants emit CO2 and nuclear plants do not. This plan is backwards. P. 57:
wind will be the most important single source of electricity generationAs wind technology advances, its capacity factor could gradually increase from its current 30%. But the wind doesn’t always blow and according to the report on page 48:
Wind, wave and solar energy are variable, and generally unpredictable.So this begs the question, can the world run on an “unpredictable” source of energy? My opinion: not if people want to live prosperous lives.
The installed capacity of renewable energy technologies will grow from the current 800 GW to 7,100 GW (emphasis mine) in 2050.The world needs to build an additional 6,300 GW of renewable capacity in 43 years. Wow. That’s equal to building 147 GW a year or 1 GW every 2.5 days of renewable capacity. One gigawatt is the average size of a current U.S. nuclear plant. So the report wants to build the equivalent renewable capacity of one nuclear plant every 2.5 days. I wonder what the IEER thinks of Greenpeace's plan since it gawks at the idea of nuclear plants being built "more rapid than one a week." (pdf)
I’m not saying that it can’t be done though. What I want to point out is that current worldwide nuclear capacity is 370 GW (pdf) versus renewables’ 800 GW. Yet they are roughly providing the same worldwide energy contribution (see chart below).
This should tell readers that we would need twice as much renewable capacity as nuclear capacity to provide the same needs. So if we need 6,300 GW of renewable capacity, that means we really only need 3,150 GW of nuclear capacity to do the same thing.
What about costs? The Greenpeace report states that hydro and wind will be economically competitive with nuclear, coal and gas. So if renewables are around the same price in the future as nuclear and you need twice as much renewables to match the same output as one nuclear plant, then we’re talking about twice as much money required for renewables then for nuclear. It appears the report is so concerned about the costs of nuclear they fail to realize how much more it will cost to implement 6,300 GW of renewables vs. 3,150 GW of nuclear for the same output.
Before the report analyzed 12 different studies, it noted that “a forecast is only as good as the assumptions that go into it.” That’s the key. All we are doing here are making assumptions. To conclude that nuclear plants are uneconomical is premature. The simple fact is this: there are 436 nuclear reactors currently operating in the world (pdf). If they weren’t economical, then they wouldn’t be operating.
After about a 10-15 year lull in new nuclear plant construction, the world is going to give it another shot. We already know how to make these plants safe and efficient. The key now is making them economically better than the alternatives. And only time, not Greenpeace reports, will tell if nuclear can compete. Nuclear power is too good of a technology to stop using. We’re talking about harnessing the atom after all. I mean how cool is that?