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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.