Skip to main content

The Betamax Fallacy: Putting Nuclear Energy in a Green Straitjacket

betamax
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.

Comments

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

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear Is a Long-Term Investment for Ohio that Will Pay Big

With 50 different state legislative calendars, more than half of them adjourn by June, and those still in session throughout the year usually take a recess in the summer. So springtime is prime time for state legislative activity. In the next few weeks, legislatures are hosting hearings and calling for votes on bills that have been battered back and forth in the capital halls.

On Tuesday, The Ohio Public Utilities Committee hosted its third round of hearings on the Zero Emissions Nuclear Resources Program, House Bill 178, and NEI’s Maria Korsnick testified before a jam-packed room of legislators.


Washingtonians parachuting into state debates can be a tricky platform, but in this case, Maria’s remarks provided national perspective that put the Ohio conundrum into context. At the heart of this debate is the impact nuclear plants have on local jobs and the local economy, and that nuclear assets should be viewed as “long-term investments” for the state. Of course, clean air and electrons …