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The Betamax Fallacy: Putting Nuclear Energy in a Green Straitjacket

A Betamax machine
Energy is energy – and producing electricity doesn’t have an ideological bias. But how electricity gets produced is another matter. It involves interactions between government, industry and citizens, which quickly gives it an ideological cast.

In England, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, the first Green Party member of parliament offer what represents energy manna to them in a recent Guardian article:
If there weren't already a solution at hand, we'd have to be frantically hunting around for one. But the fact is that there is - renewables, combined with a serious drive for energy conservation, which would also have the added benefits of making our homes more comfortable and our air more breathable.
They put this at the end of the article, the capper on a loosely reasoned piece on the downsides of nuclear energy, which they call  the Betamax of the energy world. I wouldn’t even call Betamax the Betamax of the videotape world – it was a technologically superior alternative to VHS -but the image resonates for those over 30, so it works even if It isn’t quite accurate.

The article isn’t quite accurate, either.

Interestingly, the authors do not argue that nuclear energy is past its sell-by date or technologically dubious. Instead, they try several other kinds of arguments: it’s unreliable (counterintuitive), it’s managed by companies (Irrelevant), and it’s too expensive (an old favorite). Let’s take a look at these arguments.
It is immensely and unpredictably expensive. Even a group called Supporters of Nuclear Energy is now questioning the cost of nuclear to the UK.
Building new facilities is expensive, true, but the second part puzzled me. I clicked through on the link and found – that it isn’t true.
The Supporters of Nuclear Energy have told the Chancellor that current pricing proposals would give nuclear power an unnecessary subsidy and provide EDF, the French state-controlled group, with a huge return on its £14bn investment in the first two plants.
Here’s what the group really thinks:
SONE feels the odds are being stacked against nuclear because it is being lumped together with wind power and other subsidized renewable energy sources in the price set-up to “create a level playing field.”
It was leveled for renewable energy, though,not nuclear energy.

But what about the argument that the high cost of building a facility should keep it out of the energy mix?

I took a look over at the Energy Information Agency to see how a relatively objective source tabulated the cost of different energy sources, taking into account construction and other elements.

Here’s what it says about nuclear energy (focus on the dollars per megawatt hours in this admittedly dense prose):
At a 5% discount rate, the levelised costs of nuclear electricity generation in OECD countries range between 29 USD/MWh (Korea) and 82 USD/MWh (Hungary). Investment costs represent by far the largest share of total levelised costs, around 60% on average, while O&M [operations and management] costs represent around 24% and fuel cycle costs around 16%. These figures include costs for refurbishment, waste treatment and decommissioning after a 60‑year lifetime.
And renewable energy:
At a 5% discount rate, levelised generation costs for onshore wind power plants in OECD countries considered in the study range between 48 USD/MWh (United States) and 163 USD/MWh (Switzerland), and from 101 USD/MWh (United States) to 188 USD/MWh (Belgium) for offshore wind. The share of investment costs is 77% for onshore wind turbines and 73% for offshore wind turbines.
In other words, nuclear energy stands up pretty well in head-to-head cost comparisons.
It is by its nature monopolistic.
What they mean here is not that the facilities are built by single companies that illegally squash competition, the usual meaning under U.S. antitrust law, but that they are built by companies and not by communities. This feels like a philosophical underpinning of the Green Party, so of you agree with it, fine, join the Greens; if not, also fine, don’t join the Greens. It’s not really an argument against nuclear energy per se, but a preference for energy that can be generated very locally – solar panels on roofs, windmills in the backyard – and maybe wind farms for a town. Feels very Whole Earth Catalog, but it has a back-to-the-Earth appeal.

Remember: the Greens have one member in parliament.
Fifth, it is unreliable. If a handful of plants are responsible for a large percentage of Britain's power, sudden shutdowns could have hugely disruptive effects - as sweating Japanese salarymen in their suddenly non-air conditioned offices found after the Fukushima disaster. A power system reliant on nuclear can never be a reliable, resilient system.
This one’s just ridiculous and even a little offensive. Happily, they don’t try a comparison with “reliable, resilient” renewable energy or the wind, as they say, would be out of their sails.
However I try to square these arguments, the authors keep warping reality to force electricity generation into the Green straitjacket they’ve knitted for it.  When ideology overrides a people’s energy needs, as in Germany, the result can be impressively severe. Call it the Betamax Fallacy – defined as “dismissing good technology for bad reasons.”
I cherry picked three of the five points offered by the authors to keep the post contained. The other two are “It’s slow to build” and “it isn’t renewable.” Tackle those, if you’d like, for extra credit.


Will Davis said…
Excellent evisceration of a very shoddy piece on the part of the Green Party; kudos to NEI for this.

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