Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Journalistic research fail? Foreign Affairs claims wrongly that “No country has developed this [nuclear] technology to a point where it can and will be widely and successfully deployed.”. But two countries, France and Sweden, did just that in the 1970s.
Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change
There Is Not Enough Time for Nuclear Innovation to Save the Planet
By Allison Macfarlane
July 8, 2021
The world is almost out of time with respect to decarbonizing the energy sector. Doing so, experts agree, is essential to forestalling some of the most alarming consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels, droughts, fires, extreme weather events, ocean acidification, and the like. These threats have helped generate fresh interest in the potential for nuclear power—and, more specifically, innovative nuclear reactor designs—to allow people to rely less on carbon-spewing electricity sources such as coal, natural gas, and oil. In recent years, advanced nuclear designs have been the focus of intensive interest and support from both private investors such as Bill Gates—who founded TerraPower, a nuclear reactor design company, in 2006—and national governments, including that of the United States.
Advocates hope that this renewed focus on nuclear energy will yield technological progress and lower costs. But when it comes to averting the imminent effects of climate change, even the cutting edge of nuclear technology will prove to be too little, too late. Put simply, given the economic trends in existing plants and those under construction, nuclear power cannot positively impact climate change in the next ten years or more. Given the long lead times to develop engineered, full-scale prototypes of new advanced designs and the time required to build a manufacturing base and a customer base to make nuclear power more economically competitive, it is unlikely that nuclear power will begin to significantly reduce our carbon energy footprint even in 20 years—in the United States and globally. No country has developed this technology to a point where it can and will be widely and successfully deployed.
To be fair the deployment logistics of building enough nuclear to hit net zero would be insanely expensive – as Willis calculated in US Green Impossibilities, the US would need to complete a brand new 1.2GW nuclear plant every week, between now and 2040 (975 weeks), to replace an estimated 1175GW of generating capacity with zero carbon nuclear. And we’re already 12 weeks behind schedule. At around $10 billion per plant, total cost would be around $10 trillion dollars.
But attempting to replicate this feat with wind or solar is ever more absurd. Given a renewable capacity factor of around 15%, a 5MW wind turbine produces an average of 0.75MW. So we need 1175GW / 0.75MW = 1.6 million wind turbines or solar plants.
To put it another way, the wind industry estimates wind turbines cost $1.3-2.2 million / MW nameplate capacity. So, lets be generous, 1.6 million wind turbines x 5MW x $1.3 million / MW = $10.4 trillion.
OK, so far the cost of wind power is comparable to the cost of building nuclear plants.
Ah but I forgot battery backup. If you assume a need for at least 5 days worth of backup power, to cover widespread wind droughts which occur every other year, you need 1175GW x 24 hours per day x 5 = 141,000GWh of battery capacity.
The Hornsdale Battery in South Australia holds 194MWh, and cost $161 million Aussie dollars. Lets say 161 * 0.75 = $121 million USD. Scale up to 141,000GWh, to cover a 5 day winter wind drought, and you need 141,000GWh / 194MWh x $121 million USD = $87,943,298,000,000 – eighty eight trillion US dollars.
Renewables look competitive with nuclear, until you factor in the cost of battery backup.
I mean you can play with the numbers, say assume you only need one day of battery backup instead of five, but then you would have to live with a seriously elevated risk that the electricity grid would fail when you really need it, like in the middle of a Texan ice storm. Even 5 days backup is risky, back in 2018 Britain suffered a wind drought which lasted at least 11 days. Or you could assume nuclear plants cost $20 billion per plant rather than $10 billion, but even doubling the cost of nuclear still looks good compared to the cost of renewables + backup. Or you could use absurd industry claimed capacity factors of 40-60% for wind turbines, but this doesn’t solve the problem of energy storage.
It is possible the cost of energy storage will plummet. There are technologies which might achieve this, like Vanadium flow batteries – but none of them are ready to deploy at scale, otherwise we would be already doing it, rather than building expensive Tesla batteries. A single large city scale Vanadium flow backup battery would consume a sizeable fraction of the current global annual supply of Vanadium. It would be crazy to gamble on the imminent development of an affordable, scalable energy storage technology which doesn’t exist yet, the search for which has eluded scientists for well over a century.
How did the French and Swedes manage a rapid switch to nuclear power in the 1970s? Simple answer, their 1970s plants didn’t cost USD 10-20 billion each. The governments of Sweden and France considered nuclear power to be a strategic priority, to protect their national economies against energy price shocks and political instability in producer nations, so they eliminated red tape and much of the planning process, and simply built the plants.
I’m not personally in favour of eliminating the planning process, I completely understand if nobody wants a hastily built nuclear reactor next door. I think there are much better uses for $10 trillion, like retiring some of the USA’s terrifying government debt. But it could be done, if say there was some kind of national or international crisis driving the decision to go nuclear, as the French and Swedes believed in the 1970s.
Draw your own conclusions, about why nobody today is rushing to embrace such an obvious option.