The knock-down case against nuclear power: it'll be too slow, and too expensive, to help us deal with our IPCC targets


The “ten-year climate deadline” that the IPCC, and Extinction Rebellion have drummed into our minds recently - meaning action now to avoid being in a bad place in a decade, not meaning 10 years of grace - will spell radical change for many of our major infrastructures. But it looks like it’s going to mean the death-knell for nuclear power.

In the last decade, as indicators worsened, significant environmentalists—like George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand—have made strong zero-carbon cases for nuclear power. A joint statement between Lynas and Monbiot made this point (in the course of opposing the construction of Hinkley B, the new UK nuclear power plant):

As committed environmentalists, our conversion to the cause of nuclear power was painful and disorienting. All of us carried a cost in changing our position, antagonising friends and alienating colleagues. But we believe that shutting down – or failing to replace – our primary source of low carbon energy during a climate emergency is a refined form of madness.

Because atomic energy provides a steady baseload of electricity, it has great potential to balance the output from renewables, aiding the total decarbonisation of the power supply. The dangers associated with nuclear power have been wildly exaggerated, all too often with the help of junk science. Climate breakdown presents a far greater hazard to human life. The same goes for the air pollution caused by burning coal.

…We would like to see the government produce a comparative study of nuclear technologies, including the many proposed designs for small modular reactors, and make decisions according to viability and price, rather than following the agenda of the companies which have its ear.

Some fourth-generation designs, if governments are prepared to invest in sufficient research and development, could answer three needs at once: for low carbon energy, energy security and the disposal of nuclear waste…

However, we discovered this week that these plans face a very hard-nosed limitation, when it comes to their efficacy for contributing to zero-carbon economies: They look like being both too slow, and too expensive, for the task.

This Reuters report, summarising this study, says that:

Nuclear power is losing ground to renewables in terms of both cost and capacity as its reactors are increasingly seen as less economical and slower to reverse carbon emissions, an industry report said.

In mid-2019, new wind and solar generators competed efficiently against even existing nuclear power plants in cost terms, and grew generating capacity faster than any other power type, the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) showed.

"Stabilizing the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow," said Mycle Schneider, lead author of the report. "It meets no technical or operational need that low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper and faster."

The report estimates that since 2009 the average construction time for reactors worldwide was just under 10 years, well above the estimate given by industry body the World Nuclear Association (WNA) of between 5 and 8.5 years. 

The extra time that nuclear plants take to build has major implications for climate goals, as existing fossil-fueled plants continue to emit CO2 while awaiting substitution.

"To protect the climate, we must abate the most carbon at the least cost and in the least time," Schneider said.

Nuclear power is not only too slow to build for our climate urgency, it’s too expensive to pay for as well:

The cost of generating solar power ranges from $36 to $44 per megawatt hour (MWh), the WNISR said, while onshore wind power comes in at $29–$56 per MWh. Nuclear energy costs between $112 and $189.

Over the past decade, the WNISR estimates levelized costs - which compare the total lifetime cost of building and running a plant to lifetime output - for utility-scale solar have dropped by 88% and for wind by 69%. 

For nuclear, they have increased by 23%, it said.

Capital flows reflect that trend. In 2018, China invested $91 billion in renewables but just $6.5 billion in nuclear. In the United States, renewable capacity is expected to grow by 45 GW in the next three years, while nuclear and coal are set to retire a net 24 GW.

China, still the world's most aggressive nuclear builder, has added nearly 40 reactors to its grid over the last decade, but its nuclear output was still a third lower than its wind generation. 

Although several new nuclear plants are under construction, no new project has started in China since 2016.

Global nuclear operating capacity has increased 3.4% in the past year to 370 gigawatts, a new historic maximum, but with renewable capacity growing quickly, the share of nuclear in the world's gross power generation has stayed at just over 10%. 

In the decade to 2030, 188 new reactors would have to be connected to the grid to maintain the status quo, which is more than three times the rate achieved over the past decade, the WNISR estimates.

The baseload question - where does the constant energy supply come from for our lives, when the renewable sources abate - is the one most often answered by nuclear power.

But this evades what happens when we see the crossing lines of rising energy efficiency (meaning less demand domestically and commercially), and more distributed forms of energy storage (meaning less need for massively centralised supplies like nuclear - or for that matter, existing hydrocarbons. See the IPPR’s report here).

What may be required, beneath all this, is what David Bollier (the commons thinker profiled regularly here) calls an OntoShift - a shift in ontology, our sense of what is really possible in our environment. This could be the shift from an expectation that a central body will provide our energy (state-controlled nuclear power), to a sense of responsibility for the mutual self-management of our energy resources (civic and regional energy webs).