Why wind energy is the pragmatic choice, and nuclear isn’t

Last update: August 6, 2014

Many nuclear energy advocates have devoted a considerable amount of time in the past few years to bashing wind energy, making a remarkable number of claims against it, some of which contain grains of truth, many of which don’t.

The arguments for nuclear are good: it has very low full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions per MWh, nuclear plants can last for decades, they provide stable baseload power, they have a very low mortality rate per TWh, and once they are operational their operating costs are relatively low.  So why isn’t this a blog debunking the myths about nuclear energy instead of a blog that dominantly focuses on wind energy?

Pickering nuclear plant and wind turbine in Ontario courtesy http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pickering-nuclear-generating-station-001.jpg

Dispassionate, big picture thinking, research and analysis make it clear that wind energy is the more pragmatic choice for the majority of jurisdictions around the world. It’s obvious most utilities and strategists are thinking clearly, because wind energy is on track to exceed world wide nuclear generation capacity in the next few years, while nuclear capacity is being taken offline and not being replaced with more nuclear generation.

The reasons why wind is the pragmatic choice are straightforward and obvious, once they are pointed out. They don’t require sophisticated models or assessments, although those have been created and assessed as well. All it takes is to stop thinking like an engineer and consider the full spectrum of requirements for building out a generation source in large increments.

Price

The IEA puts the price of newly built nuclear energy at 11 to 13 cents USD per KWH over the full lifecycle. The recent UK Hinckley deal with EDF to build new reactors at an existing nuclear site — the cheapest siting option — would see a price of 15 cents USD per KWH for 35 years guaranteed.

Nuclear power is just more expensive than other mainstream, low-carbon sources such as wind and solar photovoltaics.

Social License

Social license is acceptance by the community, stakeholders and society at large that the development under consideration has the right to be built and operate.  There is no social license for nuclear in the very large majority of jurisdictions world wide, and there is overwhelming majority support in poll after poll for wind in both rural and urban areas, so wind energy can actually be built, and nuclear can’t.This is frustrating for people who understand that the fears related to nuclear energy are for the most part baseless, especially when the statistics are assessed with open eyes.  Nuclear’s deaths per TWh are much, much lower than fossil fuel generation by any analysis, and are in the same ballpark as wind, solar and other renewables. It’s benign, but it is tightly coupled to radiation and nuclear weapons in people’s minds. Accidents such as Fukushima and Three Mile Island receive enormous world wide press, but don’t kill anyone.

Wind energy has a minority of very vocal antagonists, but every poll that is phrased neutrally finds overwhelming majority support for wind energy and usually for wind energy near to people as well.  From a broader societal perspective, wind energy is understood to be a benign good with very few and very manageable downsides.

It may not be fair to nuclear, but it’s true. Attempting to change the world’s mind about the dangers of nuclear energy in the face of 70 years of dramatization by Hollywood and the enormous negative press that the small handful of major accidents received is a mug’s game.  That’s why jurisdictions such as Japan and Germany are getting out of nuclear. Their citizens just don’t accept it anymore.

Human Resources

The skills required to massively expand wind energy are basic skilled trades — electricians, concrete workers, truck drivers, crane operators — and the world has a lot of them already, often underemployed or unemployed. Cross-training existing trades to build, erect and maintain wind turbines instead of houses, vehicles or malls is relatively trivial, requiring at most a few months. And wind energy can be built with massive parallelization; due to the distributed nature of the form factor, many, many wind farms can have many, many people working on them simultaneously.

The skills required to build and operate nuclear reactors safely are not basic skilled trades, and even the basic skilled trades have to be held to an extraordinary quality standard due to the nature of the built object.  The human resources required to ramp up a significant nuclear build out include a large number of nuclear engineers who don’t exist and can’t be created from existing trained personnel without 5-15 years of re-education. People are not opting into nuclear engineering or even pre-cursor education programs in schools because they realize that there are no jobs in the field and because of the negative associations nuclear energy has. It might be possible to build five to ten nuclear plants at a time and guarantee that they will be safely constructed and operated with the skilled resources available. And as nuclear plants take a decade to build and certify for operation, it’s very difficult to shift the limited resources between projects with any safety. The majority of skilled resources today are only skilled in 40 year old technologies at that, so even the nuclear engineers that exist are not capable of shifting to new nuclear build out without substantial retraining and certification.

Financing

The history of nuclear energy is a history of cost overruns, schedule overruns and underperforming capital assets. Financing the $7-10 billion USD megaprojects is extremely difficult as a result, and when they do manage to get financed the debt rating agencies typically downgrade them at the first hiccup — understandably — changing the economics of the deal for the worse. To even be eligible for bond issues, governments have to specifically enact legislation waiving liability of the nuclear operator for damages over a certain point, typically in the $750M-$1B USD range. These numbers are large, but the potential for a nuclear plant to make a large area uninhabitable for decades however statistically unlikely has enormous costs associated with it.

Wind energy, on the other hand, is a piece of cake to finance: much lower upfront costs, massively parallelization of manufacturing and construction, and many fewer critical bottlenecks on the path to operation. And the liability insurance related to wind farms is insignificant compared to other costs: no special statutes are required. Incentives and guarantees such as those provided by the US Production Tax Credit, the Australian Renewable Energy Certificate and the Ontario Feed-in-Tariff program (recently stopped for new large wind farms), make it easier to get financing, but even without those programs new wind farms are trivial to finance compared to nuclear plants.

Regulatory Approval

The current cost of regulatory oversight and approval for a single nuclear reactor is approaching $1 billion USD by itself.  This is understandable given the lethal cargo that reactors contain and the challenge of safe interim storage of dangerously radioactive waste, along with the more spectacular challenges of Fukushima, Two Mile Island and Chernobyl and the terrorism problem (see the next point).Meanwhile, there’s the predictable cost of regulatory approvals for wind farms, which is in line with any other rural construction project of their scale that doesn’t harm ground water, sits lightly on the land, has no ill health effects and saves a lot more wildlife than it could possibly kill.

Many more businesses and states will build wind farms rather than waste money on the 10 year+ process of just getting a new nuclear plant approved.

Terrorism

Nuclear plants contain terrorist gold, whether they want to build a dirty bomb or fly a hijacked jet into a reactor. Plants have to be hardened massively from a physical and intrusion security perspective, with enormous numbers of overlapping, carefully maintained security measures including large numbers of armed guards. A typical suggestion is to build them in existing military bases; what’s happening instead is that military bases are getting wind and solar arrays.Wind farms contain absolutely nothing of interest to terrorists.  They are typically patrolled by one unarmed guard at a time, if they are patrolled at all.

End of Life

When wind turbines reach end-of-life, they are replaced with bigger, more efficient wind turbines. In the extremely rare circumstance where they aren’t, it’s cheap, easy and safe to erase all trace of them from the land. Dismantle the blades and tower, sell the components on the secondary market or for scrap, cover over the tracks and base and within a year or two, a wind farm’s prior existence would be virtually impossible to prove without a metal detector.When nuclear reactors reach end-of-life, massive amounts of deeply contaminated material is created which has to sit on the site in perpetuity or be shipped at extraordinary expense extraordinary distances to safe containment facilities.  The land isn’t useful for anything else for generations at least.

Changing Demand Characteristics

In developed countries, demand characteristics have shifted substantially from the heyday of nuclear build out. Demand is much peakier, and the minimum energy demand is usually much lower in the majority of jurisdictions. This is obvious once societal changes are assessed: shifting of manufacturing to cheap labor markets, reduced resource refinement in developed countries and much more efficient appliances and technologies are three obvious ones. Each of those has shifted demand loads enormously, both in quantity and time-of-day.

The fundamental characteristic of many nuclear technologies is that they are very, very slow to turn up or down, usually in the order of days. It can’t respond to market conditions during the day.  Many fleets were built with this assumption, for example, Ontario’s 50%+ nuclear capacity. As a result, conditions of surplus baseload generation are becoming more and more common in high nuclear capacity developed countries world wide. When this occurs, energy has to be dumped at zero or negative prices to neighbouring jurisdictions, or in the worst case emergency shutdowns of reactors are required, which with many technologies means very expensive and slow returns to service. France has many follow-the-load reactors built, but what this really means is that they keep running and blow excess heat off by bypassing the generators; the reactor itself is still humming away at full operational cost.

The economics of nuclear power are the other reason for poor load following characteristics. They are so expensive to build and operate in reality that they lose economic viability if running at less than maximum possible capacity.

Wind energy fits into this new demand model better than nuclear does. It’s far from perfect, but it’s very easy to feather wind turbines. To return to Ontario, all wind farms in that province of Canada will be remotely featherable by grid operators by the end of 2014.

Summary

For context, I’m for building new nuclear plants where there is sufficient will and social licence to overcome the challenges outlined above, China being one example, but I’m realistic that our capacity to build them safely and economically is extremely thin, and the number of places where there is social license for new nuclear is tiny. This is why I believe that Ontario should and likely will phase out 20% of its aging nuclear fleet over the next few years and build a lot more wind energy, lowering its nuclear capacity to 40% or so.

The reality is that we can build sufficient wind generation to make a significant difference for global warming through displacing fossil fuel generation in the next 20-40 years. We can’t build and operate enough nuclear plants to make a difference. That’s why this blog is devoted to smoothing the path for wind energy instead of fighting the impossible fight for nuclear.

17 comments

  1. Ben Courtice · · Reply

    Good blog post. Except this. Nuclear ” is tightly coupled to radiation and nuclear weapons in people’s minds. Accidents such as Fukushima and Three Mile Island receive enormous world wide press, but don’t kill anyone.”

    It is coupled to nuclear weapons and radiation in people’s minds because… it is coupled to them in the real world. It’s not just in people’s minds. And to say the Fukushima accident didn’t kill anyone is skating on thin ice indeed. The decaying caesium atoms are going to be there for quite a while to come. How can we tell how many cancers they may cause?

    Also, in Australia environmentalists have been campaigning against a nuclear waste dump to be located near a remote aboriginal community. Aside from the racism implied in that choice, there is still no acceptable long-term storage for nuclear waste. If there were, why not store it somewhere less remote? You must realise this as you use the term “interim” to describe storage of waste. Why keep generating eon-lasting poisons when we have no way to safely dispose of them?

  2. Regarding nuclear waste, go to Der. Richard A.Muller’s page http://muller.lbl.gov/ and read the blog “The Witch of Yucca Mountain.” You can also view the webcast of his lecture from the series “Physics for Future Presidents.” It’s Lecture 8, “Review Session,” and the relevant part starts at around minute 51. You’ll find the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wR8LjNmSQ0&list=PL0500E4F3B3CD6927&index=9

    Fukushima Medical University is monitoring radiation doses from the 2011 disaster and you can read articles here: http://www.fmu.ac.jp/univ/en/

  3. I do note one thing about this article: It completely ignored Thorium Subcritical Reactors, one of which is currently under testing in Norway and which are also the planned future of China and India’s power grids. Removing the potential for meltdown and the risk of weapons proliferation from the waste by-products (Thorium waste cannot be utilized for weapons purposes) will give TSR’s a significant advantage over current Uranium technology.

    I don’t bash wind; I think it’s a great thing. But, here is what I do believe: We are going to need a baseline power generation technology to smooth out the fluctuations present in wind and solar. That technology should be TSR’s. Rather than invest huge capital in already-failed battery storage technology (such as ABC123 systems), it would be much more prudent to invest in TSR’s that have a nearly unlimited fuel supply (Thorium is a by-product of most mining), very little, if any, safety risks, and are rapidly scalable to meet the fluctuations.

    1. The history of nuclear energy is littered with grand dreams of technology which would power the Earth all by itself. Proponents of thorium reactors make those claims as well.

      In the meantime, exactly one tiny test reactor in the world is using thorium for a five trial after a thirty year history of being in development. A precious trial was shut down after 1.5 years and not restarted due to technical problems and lack of any particularly astounding results.

      This is an immature technology with unknown full life cycle costs that is not used in utility scale generation anywhere. It has much worse scaleability challenges than current technologies as a result and the public will be unlikely to understand or accept the differences which purportedly make it better or safer.

      Ignoring it as a viable short term solution to the severe and pressing problem of anthropogenic global warming is as reasonable as ignoring fusion.

      Solutions exist that are massively scaleable, mature, safe, have vast supply chains and enormous public support: renewables. It is much more pragmatic to build them out rapidly while testing determines if there is any merit to thorium advocate claims, if they are at all cost effective and while we find out if thorium reactors will have any greater social license than traditional reactors.

      Deferring renewables build out based on faith in an unproven technology that can’t scale in time to do any good for global warming would be a catastrophic strategy.

      1. So what baseline power generation do you intend the world to use? Grid-scale storage solutions aren’t even on the horizon since ABC123’s implosion. Thus, some power generation technology will have to stand in as baseline, scalable power. Personally, I don’t want that being filthy coal or poisonous natural gas. I’m really confused here as I am not seeing you provide any reasonable alternatives and this is exactly the reason so many don’t stand behind renewables full-force; no one yet has determined what the baseline technology is and those touting them, like you, don’t want to admit that baseline production is going to be needed. I’d like your input on baseline; real input, not this “renewables don’t need baseline power” diatribe that doesn’t stand up to logic and reason.

      2. 1. Baseload demand is shrinking in most post-industrial countries and even some transforming countries. Demand is increasingly spiky around the world.
        2. Existing nuclear and hydro are significant sources of baseload in many countries today and some additional capacity is being built although nuclear is currently being decommissioned faster than commissioned.
        3. Wind and solar are displacing coal generation in Australia as one example today.
        4. Every grid is a balancing act of different generation sources with different characteristics. Every generation source has a capacity factor that is less than 100%. Baseload generation all has hot standby today to maintain grid stability in well managed grids. Shifting some or all of baseload to generation forms with different characteristics isn’t absurd, it’s an engineering problem. Reliability can be achieved with a mix of renewables as study after study has shown.

        http://www.ies.unsw.edu.au/about-us/news-activities/2013/04/least-cost-100-renewable-electricity

        http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/JDEnPolicyPt1.pdf

        http://www.eclareon.eu/sites/default/files/res_integration_final_report.pdf

        http://www.unendlich-viel-energie.de/uploads/media/35_Renews_Spezial_Renewable_Energies_and_Baseload_Power_Plants-1.pdf

        Unproven technologies are not a reasonable answer to today’s problems or tomorrow’s. At best thorium will be a bit player in twenty years and then its track record will be obvious enough that it will either be relegated to the trash heap or be a known part of generations future.

        Please note that shifting arguments without providing references and ongoing hammering on the point of a tiny and untested technology will start to test moderation policy limits.

        Update: The commenter’s subsequent remarks failed to pass moderation policy and were deleted.

  4. Natasha · · Reply

    Why paint all nuclear with the same generation 3 brush? This blog post isn’t entirely representative of the facts. Generation 4 Integral Fast Breeder Nuclear actually exists and has for decades. So it has been tested, has been connected to the grid, and is viable for scale up. It prevents proliferation. It burns existing generation 3 waste. It is modular and hence cheaper than gen3 plant, and hence also able to use existing human resource skills more than the blog post above suggests. http://www.theengineer.co.uk/energy-and-environment/in-depth/prism-project-a-proposal-for-the-uks-problem-plutonium/1016276.article

    Moderation note: typo corrected re Gen 3 vs Gen 4 in second sentence above for clarity purposes.

    1. Be careful, Natasha. Barnard is very anti-nuclear and his moderation policy doesn’t allow for dissenting opinions for very long, especially with “tiny and untested technology” since he refuses to admit that Thorium Subcritical Reactors have been successfully tested for 20+ years in the U.S. starting in the 60’s and are now being tested in Norway as well as having China and India betting their entire power generation strategy on this technology. I expect that we will both get censored for our comments since they don’t fully support wind energy as the ONLY solution.

      1. Please note that most of Mr. Shepard’s comments on this post were permitted and responded to at length. Hardly draconian. He failed to stay with bounds of moderation policy despite a warning.

        Once again. Stay relevant, stay nice, stay respectful. And provide references for your claims, not just assertions. That’s the basis of my moderation policy. Mr. Shepard fails to provide references and is solely focused on thorium reactors, a niche and unproven technology. He has a hobby horse, but riding hobby horses is only permitted in small doses per my moderation policy. And in this comment he fails the respectful test as well.

        This comment has been allowed to remain solely to provide clarity on moderation policies. Further comments of this sort will not be tolerated.

    2. Natasha has commented similarly here and on Quora on a semi-related question there that she posted regarding the rare earths myth related to wind energy:

      http://www.quora.com/Greenpeace/Why-are-Greenpeace-CAT-and-others-promoting-100-renewables-when-there-is-not-enough-rare-earth-magnetic-material-available-to-build-turbines-without-polluting-even-more-than-the-fossil-fuel-they-would-replace/answer/Mike-Barnard

      I’ll replicate my comment from Quora here:

      Gen 4 doesn’t exist in production, only in a few pilots most of which have been shut down. The earliest pilot was a long time ago. This means that most claims regarding it are at best suspect; if it was so superior one of the dozen or so reactors built since 1990 would have been Gen 4. New reactors that are actually approved aren’t Gen 4. Nuclear has been at least as subject to hype as any other technology, but cold economics usually wins out, and Gen 4 has not proven itself economically.

      Any complex technology which is not production ready at scale today that also requires very significant regulatory and safety certification assessments is not going to make a substantial dent in generation in the next 20 years.

      The modularity of Gen 4 is, in my opinion, partially a red herring. Due to non-technological concerns, they must still be concentrated in nuclear plants. They still require a very large number of very highly intelligent people with advanced education to design, build and operate. The fail safe aspects are good, as are the non-proliferation aspects. Modularity is of greater value only if a very significant number of the objects are to be built; even the housing industry has not be disrupted by decades of pre-fab and there are a lot more houses than nuclear reactors (there are better analogies to make this point, but that’s the one that sprang to mind).

      All in all, I’ll believe Gen 4 when I see it in production.

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  8. […] world makes economic sense only some of the time where economics make it viable. There are many factors hindering nuclear growth that don’t apply to […]

  9. […] world makes economic sense only some of the time where economics make it viable. There are many factors hindering nuclear growth that don’t apply to […]

  10. […] reactors in the developed world often makes economic sense. But there are a lot of other factors also hindering nuclear growth that don’t apply to […]

  11. […] reactors in the developed world often makes economic sense. But there are a lot of other factors also hindering nuclear growth that don’t apply to […]

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