Once again it appears that reality is interfering with the building of new nuclear power plants in the UK. As a result, it looks very unlikely that any new reactors will be built. Personally, this is a setback for me, as I am very much in favour of the building of new nuclear plants in the UK, and indeed in pretty much any country that isn’t Australia.
I favour the building of new reactors, not because nuclear power is a cheap way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — because it’s not. It’s hard to think of a more expensive way to decrease emissions that doesn’t involve linking hamster wheels in parallel to a generator. And I don’t favour the building of nuclear plants for safety reasons. While it’s much safer than coal, the small but real chance of nuclear catastrophe means that nuclear power is uninsurable by normal means. No, the reason why I am in favour of the building of new nuclear power plants is the purest of all reasons — personal greed.
You see, Australia has more uranium than you can poke a stick at. (WARNING: Do NOT poke enriched uranium with a stick.) We have the largest deposits of the stuff in the world. It’s just lying out there in the desert, doing nothing except slowly mutating rabbits that dig their burrows into it. The more nuclear plants the rest of the world builds, the more of that stuff we can dig up and send overseas far away from us, and the lower my chance of being attacked by a mutant rabbit the size of an Alsatian.
The more uranium we sell, the more prosperous Australia becomes. I’ll get to share in that prosperity and we can use the money for things that are of real importance to Australians, such as developing a Grand Theft Auto game where you get to play a good guy.
Oh, wait a minute! I just remembered that as a small, open economy, Australia’s prosperity is based upon the prosperity of the rest of the world. So if the rest of the world wastes money on nuclear power plants and potentially on cleaning up nuclear disasters, that’s no good for us. The Australian economy has already taken a hit from Fukushima, and we have no desire for that to happen again. (Although, I have to admit we did get off rather lightly compared to the Japanese.) I’ve changed my mind. Strike what I just wrote. I’m now against the building of new nuclear plants anywhere.
Don’t get me wrong, if the choice is between new nuclear and new coal, nuclear wins hands down, or even all three hands down. But, fortunately, we are not faced with that choice, and I doubt anyone would ever be stupid enough to suggest that we are. Not unless they enjoyed being laughed at. Our options are not so limited.
The projected cost of the 1,600 megawatt Hinkley Point C reactor in England is 14 billion pounds or $22 billion. That’s $13,600 per kilowatt. And just because the projected cost is $22 billion doesn’t mean that it will cost $22 billion. When one is as skilled at reading nuclearese as I am, one knows that it actually means it will cost at least $22 billion. Nuclear power plants have a tendency to go over budget in a way that is rather similar to how the ocean has a tendency to be wet.
Even in cloudy old England, the cost of electricity from rooftop solar is much cheaper than the cost of electricity from new nuclear. I realize that a certain type of person reading this may feel the need to point out that solar power doesn’t produce electricity at night. Perhaps they’ll even use one or more exclamation marks when they do, as if it’s some sort of astounding revelation that they’ve only just been struck by. This never fails to surprise me, as I’ve always thought the fact that solar power depends on the sun is sort of given away by its name. Personally, I realized the sun was required years ago. Nuclear power has a problem because rooftop solar does produce electricity during the day, which pushes the price of electricity down and makes the economics of nuclear power even worse than they currently are. And just for the benefit of that certain type of idiot, I’ll mention that there are quite a few countries without nuclear power that still manage to have electricity at night.
In the final quarter of last year in the UK, installed rooftop solar apparently cost an average of about $3.30 a watt. This is quite a bit more than in Australia, and a heck of a lot more than in Germany, but even at this price, it’s still cheaper than new nuclear. How do I know this? Well, first I looked up how much light actually makes it through all the clouds, rain, mist, smog, sleet, and pipe smoke that tends to cover England, not to mention the fleets of spaceships full of Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans that are queued up waiting their turn to invade the place. Then I made reasonable estimates of the costs of fuel, operations and maintenance, nuclear waste disposal, decommissioning, and government oversight and inspections…. Oh, wait a minute. I just realized there’s a certain type of nutter, sorry, I mean person, who is never going to accept my estimates for the cost of nuclear power. They’ll be frothing at the mouth and waving around “studies” on how a nuclear reactor in Japan in 1974 cost negative dollars to build and straightened teeth. How can I convince these people to trust me? I know! I’ll go to some pro-nuclear site and use their figures! How about the NEI or Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. nuclear lobbying group? I’m sure their site can be trusted to have reliable information!
The NEI site gives a fuel cost of 0.68 cents per kilowatt-hour for nuclear power. This seems a bit low given the current cost of uranium, but seeing how little demand there is for new reactors, it might actually end up less than this. Then they give a figure of 1.51 cents per kilowatt-hour for operations and maintenance. That’s pretty darn cheap. For decommissioning costs, they give $300-500 million per reactor. But then they immediately appear to suggest it may be $450-500 million. But let’s go for the middle of their first figure and say $400 million. And for waste disposal… well, they don’t actually give a cost for that. They just point out that, in the U.S., nuclear plants pay 0.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for waste disposal (without mentioning that’s not actually the cost of disposing of waste). They certainly don’t mention that $12 billion of the money that was collected was spent developing a waste disposal site that was then abandoned and that nuclear waste in the US is now just stored at nuclear plants with nowhere to go. Fortunately, this apparently poses less of a security threat than my belt buckle at an airport. But let’s give them their 0.1 cent figure. Who knows, in a few years Nuke-Away might be invented.
I can’t see any figure for government oversight and inspections, but I guess we can manage to do without that. After all, if you can’t trust a for-profit nuclear power corporation, who can you trust?
And finally, I just need one more piece of information and that’s the cost of insurance. And I see the Nuclear Energy Institute lobbying group gives a figure of…. Hmm, that’s odd. There’s no mention of the cost of insurance at all. That’s a bit of an oversight. I know that nuclear power is uninsurable in the conventional sense that no insurance company will cover it, but that doesn’t mean the cost just goes away. Even if a nuclear power plant doesn’t pay a cent of insurance, that just pushes the cost back onto society as a whole. And while the chance of a nuclear disaster is quite low, the astounding costs that can result when things turn mutant pear shaped is staggering, and so insurance costs are quite high.
A German study by Versicherungsforen Leipzig says the actual cost of insuring nuclear power ranges from $0.19 to $3.16 a kilowatt-hour or even higher. I’ll be optimistic and assume that since Hinkley Point C will be all new and shiny, it will also be super safe and so its insurance cost will be the lowest point in the range.
So, using the costs for nuclear that I got from an industry lobbying site, and adding the most optimistic estimate of insurance costs from another source, because for some reason the lobbying site didn’t mention the cost of insurance at all, I see that even with the UK’s high solar installation costs, rooftop solar in England is much cheaper than new nuclear, costing around 30 cents kilowatt-hour, with new nuclear being about 46 cents. While the cost of electricity from rooftop solar is very high compared to Australia or Germany, it is still well below the cost of new nuclear. Utility-scale solar farms are also cheaper than new nuclear, coming in at about 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, if it’s assumed they have the same installation cost as rooftop solar. Solar would be even cheaper if I took into account the fact that it can produce electricity pretty much from day one, while it can take a great many years for a nuclear plant to be completed. However, I didn’t factor this into my calculations on account of how maths is hard.
But new nuclear doesn’t get off that easily. It’s not simply 50% more expensive than rooftop solar. If the Hinkley Point C reactor goes ahead, it won’t be completed until sometime in the early 2020s at best. If the installation cost of UK solar drops as fast as it has in Germany or Australia, then in a few years, UK solar would be as cheap or cheaper than it currently is in Germany, and electricity from it would be less than half the cost of electricity from new nuclear. If solar is installed for $1 a watt by the time Hinkely Point C is operational, then rooftop solar would cost one fifth as much as new nuclear. And it’s quite possible that the cost of solar will continue to decrease while electricity from Hinkley Point C will be stuck at about 46 cents. It could well end up being the world’s most expensive albino elephant.
So, given how much electricity from new nuclear costs, my advice is don’t build new nuclear. I guarantee you can find a mix of low-emission energy sources that will do the job at a lower cost, especially if you take into account the time it takes to build a nuclear plant. Solar is likely to be an important part of the mix, but it’s not the only option, so there is no need for anyone but idiots to worry about the fact that the sun doesn’t shine all the time or that batteries are expensive.
Ronald Brakels lives in Adelaide, South Australia. Now that his secret identity has been revealed he is free to admit he first became interested in renewable energy after environmental mismanagement destroyed his home planet of Krypton. He is keenly interested in solar energy and at completely random intervals will start talking to himself about, "The vast power of earth's yellow sun."