Pinker polymathic

by John Quiggin on April 8, 2019

The New York Times has a piece pushing the idea that nuclear power is the solution to our environmental problems. It’s familiar stuff, citing the French success in the 1970s, the promise of Gen IV and small modular reactors, and so on. Indeed, two of the authors had an almost identical piece in the Wall Street Journal in January. What’s most interesting is that the set of authors[1] this time includes Steven Pinker, who seems to be spreading his claims to expertise yet more broadly[2].

None of the authors has any training or expertise in economics, AFAICT. So, they make extreme claims such as that South Korea and China can build nuclear plants at one sixth the cost of the US. With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the 2GW Vogtle project in Georgia. That looks like coming in at about $20 billion or $10 billion/GW. Optimistic estimates of Chinese costs are around $3.5 billion/GW or one third of the US price, not competitive with new renewables under most conditions.

Moreover, it might have been worth mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power and China hasn’t started a new project in three years. In both cases, renewables have undercut even the lowest estimates of the costs of nuclear.

Also striking is a sudden shift in the argument about halfway through. The article begins reasonably enough, pointing out that the success of the French model in the 1970s depended critically on the large-scale deployment of a small number of standardised designs. (That wasn’t the only crucial feature, as I’ve pointed out before.) That contrasts sharply with the current situation where nearly every new plant is First Of A Kind, or close to. They point to US efforts to promote new nuclear power, including the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, recently passed through Congress by big margins (361 to 10 in the House, and a voice vote in the Senate).

Then suddenly, the article shifts gears, claiming that the crucial problem is irrational public fear of radiation, nuclear accidents and so forth. The obvious question to raise is: how does this supposed climate of fear manifest itself? Obviously not in a Congress, generally notable for bitter partisan division, where pro-nuclear legislation sails through with negligible opposition. Nor is there any evidence of significant resistance at the regulatory level, where numerous plants have had their licenses extended.

With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the two-reactor Vogtle project in Georgia. Googling for Vogtle protests, I found numerous links to protests from shareholders, customers and others concerned about the massive cost overruns of the project. But the only anti-nuclear protest I could find was back in 2011, and appeared to have no effect at all on the project.

Perhaps they mean that we should drop all the expensive safety precautions added since 1979, and go back to Generation II technology like that used in France. If so they should say so

The myth that nuclear power would roar ahead if only public fear could be overcome is comforting to nuclear fans. But the truth is that the technology is doomed by economics.


fn1. The only author with any relevant expertise is Staffan Qvist who works on Gen IV reactors and has previously written policy pieces with our own Barry Brook.

fn2. I also write on lots of different things. On the blog, I’m happy to state my views on all kinds of topics, as I would in ordinary conversation. But when I write for the general public, citing my professional affiliation, I try to stick to areas where I have some claim to expertise.

{ 172 comments }

1

eg 04.08.19 at 11:34 am

What is Pinker’s supposed area of expertise?

2

Person_XYZ 04.08.19 at 11:34 am

“Moreover, it might have been worth mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power and China hasn’t started a new project in three years. In both cases, renewables have undercut even the lowest estimates of the costs of nuclear.”

It’s also worth mentioning that China is also building masses of new coal power generation, probably for stupid reasons but it’s nonetheless happening.

“Perhaps they mean that we should drop all the expensive safety precautions added since 1979, and go back to Generation II technology like that used in France. If so they should say so.”

Indeed. That said, a reasonable case can be made for doing exactly that.

3

Rapier 04.08.19 at 12:35 pm

Nuclear power is sort of the original High Tech story. Endlessly promoted by ‘news’ and general interest publications that were in fact pure public relations. Usually the writers unaware they were simply doing PR. Something that might be said of most ‘news’ and information media. Usually those whose output reached the editorial page were pure PR people. Directly paid by the promoters. For the others it was stenography or what we ID today as fanboy-ism.

In the US the need for PR was especially vital because of the pretense that nuclear power is a free market phenomena. Instead of course it has always been hugely subsidized. From the designs to the liability insurance to the fuel to the long term fuel storage is has always been absolutely dependent upon government subsidy. Still, 60 years on the pretense that it is a free market industry successfully endures. 60 years is a long time to maintain an absurd fiction and it speaks to America’s almost touching naivete that the fiction, supported by the deepest of the deep state and powerful corporate interests, same thing I suppose, persists.

If anyone ever did an accounting of the total balance sheet results of nuclear power I am certain the losses would be stupendous. Remember too the cost of long term spent fuel costs still can’t be accounted for. There is no way the ‘market’ would do nuclear power if it was free. Obviously the risk is too high but when government intervenes to mitigate, hide or pretend to assume the risk no project can be denied. Fracking and self driving cars and the entire credit market, the mother of all markets. have followed this exact path.

Don’t get me wrong I am not some Libertarian saying if the ‘free market’ was only allowed to do its work all would be well. The point is there is never a free market. Markets will always be corrupted. Or alternately if not corrupted it is simply the case that government determines the winners. That is the ultimate truth. It makes no difference what the economic system is. Economic outcomes are always determined by government.

4

WLGR 04.08.19 at 1:29 pm

eg @ 1, Pinker’s background is as a cognitive psychologist in the tradition of Chomskyan generative linguistics, and that’s part of the problem: for someone so universally acclaimed for his lefty bona fides, some of Chomsky’s underlying philosophical commitments about the nature of “science,” its relationship to social theory, and so on, carry a disturbing echo of reactionary-adjacent anti-intellectualism that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place in a YouTube rant from someone like Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson about postmodern cultural Marxist radical left obscurantism and so on. (OK, that may be an exaggeration, but not by much.) From an intellectual history standpoint, one major thrust of Chomskyan linguistics was an effort to de-politicize and de-socialize the study of human language, elevating it onto the rarefied plateau of “hard” science, in the process helping to reify and articulate the vulgar modern-day ideological conception of a hard-and-fast boundary between the respectable quantitative “hard” natural sciences and the wishy-washy impressionistic “soft” social sciences.

My interpretation is that Pinker’s proclivity for making an ass of himself in disciplines in which he has little to background stems in large part from this Chomskyan-inflected intellectual self-image, of standing on the edge of the hard-science plateau looking down on the contemptible mass of qualitatively inferior soft sciences below him. From that perspective, Pinker’s background as a hard scientist makes it extremely unlikely that anything he could possibly say in opposition to the perceived views of a contemptible lefty social-science or humanities type (insert Peterson-esque anti-intellectual buzzwords as appropriate) could ever be intellectually bankrupt by comparison, even if Pinker’s position in any specific case might easily pertain to an empirical question on which he happens to be embarrassingly wrong.

5

Omega Centauri 04.08.19 at 2:13 pm

I am constantly reminded of the many who still think we aren’t serious about climate change unless we embrace Nuclear in a big big way. They seem to have been smitten by the anti-renewables meme “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow”, and hence seem to be stuck in the renewables can never be the answer bubble. Seems to be a failure to mark to market.

6

steven t johnson 04.08.19 at 3:12 pm

It’s not clear to me what the post is really about.

If it’s about the prohibitive expense of nuclear power, it seems to me that the role of US nuclear power innovation has a great deal to do with improving nuclear weapons and thus is not generally deemed an appropriate subject for economic analysis. Disguising military spending as a green project seems politically useful, even (especially?) if it’s a disguised giveaway. Also, I don’t know how one does cost/benefit analysis of having an independent power reserve in event of disruption of fuel supplies (whether by domestic or foreign interference.)

If it’s about nuclear power as a diversion from the only true green project of weaning the masses from their decadent attachment to hot water, HVAC, meat and driving around wherever and whenever they want, the Big Four of the anti-Nature offenses, it’s not quite on point. If it is, it really does need to contrast the costs to Nature of fossil fuel power as well as renewables.

If it’s about Pinker getting paid to write for reactionary causes, that really does seem to be an issue between him and his employers. It seems to me they’re getting a good bargain. Better Angels has been remarkably successful in setting the terms of debate on a host of issues. Outside of the Marxist tradition which has been excluded from the academy, it is uncommon for people writing out of field to put in the time to learn enough to be useful contributors.

WLGR’s notion that scientism is Pinker’s problem strikes me as superficially plausible. It is after all the same kind of nonsense underlying the crank field of Evolutionary Psychology. But most EPers are not so egotistical as Pinker. I think it is simply Pinker’s reactionary convictions plus his vanity that impel him to crusade out of field, and his literary skill that gets him printed.

7

Zamfir 04.08.19 at 3:20 pm

Omega says: “I am constantly reminded of the many who still think we aren’t serious about climate change unless we embrace Nuclear in a big big way. “

I don’t find that very puzzling? Many people are OK with nuclear energy as it currently exists, with the downsides as they exist.

If you are one of those people, then nuclear power shows a clear, proven, low-surprise path to a zero-CO2 grid. The only thing in the way, from that perspective, are the people who do not like the current situation (be it cost or accident risk or waste disposal or proliferation or whatever)

Renewables are more of a gamble. There is a clear path to 50% or perhaps even to 80%, but the last step is still vague. Cheap batteries, long distances grids, demand management, hydrogen, there is a plethora of possibility, but it still has to work. It might disappoint, and public opinion does not seem willing to accept much disappointment.

Then again, if you are not happy with nuclear energy, then it is even more of a gamble than renewables. People have already spent decades in vain to solve the downsides of the current systems, it’s not clear that there is much possibility left. The article promises us beautiful ” generation 4″, but that is mostly paper dreams at the moment – much vaguer than the renewable plans.

8

otpup 04.08.19 at 6:54 pm

I noticed a new push in this direction the other day when someone on FB pushed an journal article (actually 2) talking about the effects of wind power (and why we should look askance at the Green New Deal). And the guy was nuke trolling, but the thing was is that both articles describe regional saturation (the declining efficiency as an area became saturated) and regional heat gains (i.e. heat was not being removed as efficiently) but the poster didn’t seem to get that changing the heat distribution wasn’t the same thing as adding heat to the climate system.

9

Matt 04.08.19 at 7:09 pm

It appears almost certain that China will fall a bit short of its original 2020 target of 58 gigawatts of nuclear capacity. But China did resume new reactor approvals last month after a 3 year hiatus.

China to invest RMB 81 bln to build new nuclear reactors

Chinese nuclear projects built in China still don’t produce particularly cheap electricity.

China sets floor prices for 3rd gen nuclear projects

Floor prices range from 0.4151 to 0.435 yuan per kilowatt hour, depending on province. At current exchange rates of 0.1489 CNY per USD that’s $62-$65 per megawatt hour. By way of contrast, utilities in the US are signing large scale solar power purchase agreements for between a third and a half of that price. Demand that can’t be filled by renewables alone — when not firmed by batteries — is going to combined cycle natural gas plants at $40 per megawatt hour. Even if you could get new American nuclear prices down to Chinese prices, natural gas generation would still be more economical in the absence of emissions regulations.

Granted, American solar projects benefit from a 30% investment tax credit. But apply the exact same tax credit to nuclear projects and they’re still not as cheap as renewables in most regions of the US. Further, the “artificial” low prices of solar projects (from ITC) are at least partially offset by the equally artificial high prices following Section 201 Solar Tariffs imposed from the beginning of last year. If both tariffs and investment tax credits are zeroed out, I foresee large scale solar generation growing robustly in the US and nuclear projects still not competing. Absent coordinated national action against emissions, renewables/batteries/gas are going to replace all of the elderly coal generators that are dying off in the US. Even with coordinated action against emissions, nuclear is the higher-cost option that will be viable only after cheaper gains at the margin with renewables have been exhausted.

10

william u. 04.08.19 at 10:00 pm

Re: Pinker and Chomsky, I once saw Pinker speak at a lecture series in Pittsburgh. I was an undergraduate, and the University of Pittsburgh and its Honors College, to their great credit, would give free or heavily subsidized tickets to cultural events to students. This lecture series was of a sort most major cities have: it took place in a concert hall, attended by worthy local burghers — skewing towards the elderly — paying top dollar for a bit of culture and intellectual stimulation. You can imagine this crowd. What stuck out for me was how Pinker played to this crowd — when someone brought up Chomsky, Pinker made a snide reference to Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalism, to scandalised titters from the crowd. Chomsky’s politics actually had nothing to do with the question.

This didn’t leave me with a good impression of Pinker. Despite this, I recently opened a piece by Pinker linked by aldaily.com. I should have known better: Pinker was blaming the Frankfurt School for all sorts of ills on campus — and yet his article evinced even less knowledge of the Frankfurt School than I would expect of an undergraduate cribbing from the SEP for a last-minute paper. If Pinker can’t bother to do very basic homework for his public opining, I’m not going to bother to read him.

RE: nuclear protests; didn’t protest and the state legislature kill Vermont Yankee?

11

BruceJ 04.08.19 at 10:49 pm

I also write on lots of different things. On the blog, I’m happy to state my views on all kinds of topics, as I would in ordinary conversation. But when I write for the general public, citing my professional affiliation, I try to stick to areas where I have some claim to expertise.

That is why you don’t get regularly featured in the NYT. /s

I think that WLGR @4 has it right, Pinker can lob out lofty-sounding ever-so-convincing arrant nonsense with the best of them, and has his bestselling books and constant requests for his clear and obvious expertise from people who either don’t know what they don’t know or have an agenda they want him to push.

With all the acclaim, he, like Peterson and Shapiro are essentially Potemkin Intellectuals.

They often look, act and sound the part, but when you actually examine their ideas and statements, they’re meaningless fakes.

12

bt 04.09.19 at 12:28 am

It is always worth pointing out that the costs of Nuclear Power never include the costs of the disposal of the fuel. If the disposal costs are discussed, it’s passed on to the Government, or course! Let industry take the profit, make everyone else pay the price. It neatly sums up how our Job Creators view the general way that things are meant to be set up.

Any honest assessment of disposal cost, which needs to be annualized over, take a wild guess, 50,000 years or so, would be magnitudes of dollars beyond the costs of construction and operation of the power plants. We can’t even factor in the costs of technology failure or of unoforeseen catastrophies playing out over 1000’s of years. It’s truly an epic cost and a monumental risk.

For the cost of dealing with that waste we could do many many better things for the planet.

13

faustusnotes 04.09.19 at 1:21 am

I found this article about the scale of China’s renewable energy projects, and in particular its plans to shift huge amounts of energy from wind and solar in the west to the eastern mega cities. It’s worth noting that while Gen IV nuclear has been a glitter in the eye of western technophiles for at least a decade, the Chinese engineering sector very quickly set about solving all the major technical barriers to transferring energy from where it is generated to where it is used. There are still big problems in this project but it’s very clear that the Chinese government sees renewables as a very important part of its energy sector. The US could do the same thing of course, but there is no political will for it. Yet we’re supposed to believe that public opposition to nuclear is a serious problem …

14

Orange Watch 04.09.19 at 3:05 am

Zamfir@7:
If you are one of those people, then nuclear power shows a clear, proven, low-surprise path to a zero-CO2 grid.

It’s only a zero–CO2 grid if we ignore large parts of the nuclear lifecycle. My understanding is that handwaving these is all the rage for nuclear evangelists, however.

15

Brett 04.09.19 at 3:09 am

If they can develop some small, reasonably efficient nuclear reactors (probably in part for space exploration purposes down the line), then nuclear might be able to make a comeback at some point. Having to develop it in the form of gigantic plants with heavy upfront costs and water consumption seems to be a deal-breaker, and the economics are increasingly lousy compared to renewables+storage.

16

John Quiggin 04.09.19 at 3:19 am

@10 There were protests against Vermont Yankee and also in California. But in all these cases, the primary cause of closure was either technical failure or loss of economic viability (though public opposition may have weighed in the balance). And lots of plants have had license extensions without any significant controversy

For existing nukes, economic viability relative to coal and gas would be improved by a carbon price. But that wouldn’t make new nukes competitive with renewables, even after adding in storage.

17

bad Jim 04.09.19 at 7:17 am

China is scheming to exploit and possibly to export its prodigious solar and wind energy generating capacity (see China’s Ambitious Plan to Build the World’s Biggest Supergrid). So far they’re struggling to integrate their megavolt inputs into an otherwise conventional transmission system. It would appear that a command-and-control economy allows them to build awesome infrastructure which they can’t actually use, yet.

Maybe they could make modular nuclear reactors, handy little things you wouldn’t mind in your neighborhood, thriftily reusing reaction byproducts, throttling up and down to balance the load, but such a development hasn’t made the news.

18

WLGR 04.09.19 at 1:46 pm

Not to circle back to the all-around awfulness of Steven Pinker, but coming from him this seems particularly likely…

Perhaps they mean that we should drop all the expensive safety precautions added since 1979, and go back to Generation II technology like that used in France. If so they should say so

…and for a very specific reason: a few years back he had a similarly coy, “I’m not saying get rid of all the safeguards, I’m just vaguely insinuating that they’re, like, overblown or whatever” style outburst over institutional red tape in the area of bioethics, an outburst in which he had the chutzpah to complain about “perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities,” listing those allegedly kooky concerns in the same sequence as “freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers,” when discussing a field whose modern incarnation was literally an outcome of the Nuremberg trials. Notably, when elaborating on the topic in a subsequent interview, Pinker clarified that a major target of his opprobrium was IRB safeguards on the rights of human experimental research subjects in areas like confidentiality and consent, which makes me suspect that the origin story for the entire episode was Pinker (or possibly one of his B-list celebrity professor sycophants) getting flagged by an IRB reviewer for being lazy or sloppy with some aspect of their human subjects research protocol, then subjected to the mild inconvenience of slightly delaying their experimental timetable to make procedural changes in their lab, then possibly infuriated even further by the fact that IRBs are thankfully one of the few areas of academic bureaucracy in which “do you know who I am” or “let me call my bigshot golfing buddy” can’t always force a problem like that to magically go away without actually putting in the legwork. (And of course “golfing buddy” is a synecdoche that in this case could also encompass, say, “fellow passenger on the Lolita Express,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

So yeah, whining about procedural safeguards on the infallible judgment of big important prima donna Science Guys, and whipping out his big hard-scientist celebrity-scholar dick to wave it around in areas far removed from his actual scholarly background: two great Steven Pinker tastes that taste great together!

19

WLGR 04.09.19 at 2:50 pm

And to tie it up with a pretty little bow, the NYT op-ed’s fleeting allusion to “shifting regulations” and “supply-chain and construction snafus” as contributing to higher post-1970s nuclear power costs is, among other things, a way of flagrantly glossing over one of the great underdiscussed scandals in the history of modern science, the use of Navajo Nation lands for decades beginning with the Manhattan Project as the US’s primary domestic source of uranium. Not only did this involve massively inadequate safety regulation of mining and processing sites, including a 1979 uranium mill spill in New Mexico that released more radioactivity than the Three Mile Island incident a few months earlier, all of which has helped contribute to extreme rates of radiation-related medical conditions among the Navajo that continue to this day; and not only did it involve the employment of thousands of Navajo miners without the slightest effort to inform them about the dangers of radiation exposure in the mines, let alone follow appropriate exposure precautions or provide appropriate compensation or treatment; but apropos Pinker’s abovementioned oh-so-grave concern for bioethics, one neat little side project was a long-running series of Tuskegee-esque medical experiments by the US Public Health Service on unwitting Navajo research subjects to study the health effects of radiation exposure, results from which were still being published in allegedly reputable scientific journals as late as 1998.

So boo hoo, your precious nuclear fuel is more expensive now than it was back in the good old days when men were men and Injuns were animals, go cry me a goddamn river and don’t spill any uranium into it either.

20

JW Mason 04.09.19 at 4:33 pm

As most folks here know, the issue isn’t just the cost per gigawatt, but the availability of dispatchable baseload power. No matter how cheap renewables are, you need something else if there are periods when they are not available.

The solution to this is storage and greater transmissions capacity, so you can use power generated when and where the sun is shining and wind is blowing to meet demand when and where they aren’t.

So while this post seems right to me, the relevant question istm isn’t just the cost of nuclear vs renewables, but the cost of nuclear vs the storage and transmission improvements need to allow renewables to function as dispatchable power.

21

Peter Dorman 04.09.19 at 5:42 pm

And to expand on JWM’s point, nuclear makes a bad adjunct to renewables during the transition, since, absent high capacity, low cost storage, renewables are variable and need a variable complement. Nukes, with their high fixed and low variable costs, are a bad match.

22

Brett 04.09.19 at 9:43 pm

There are some nuclear designs that theoretically could be throttled, but I suspect the more likely outcome is that we build a ton of flywheels (not as energy dense as batteries, but more so than pumping water to store energy).

23

jrzm 04.10.19 at 12:04 am

I liked how Jason Stanley defended Pinker by saying more or less that Pinker’s a good guy but has a tendency to attract hordes of alt-right screwballs:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qubr4MZZSfU

Hmmm…what was it about something that walked like a Duck?

24

jrzm 04.10.19 at 12:08 am

@4, Chomsky has a rather dim view of Pinker’s recent “work”:

25

Moz of Yarramulla 04.10.19 at 3:06 am

The trouble is that the longer we have to wait for fast-responding nuclear plants to start being designed, the less likely it is that that there will be any point actually designing them. I noticed the other day that Siemens are shipping newly developed 500 kV/63kA switchgear to China because over 3Mm+ distances that stuff makes real sense. I fear that once again nuclear power is a solution in 20 years time to a problem we have today, and one you can buy commercial off the shelf solutions for.
Now, if the nuclear people could come up with a solution to the political obstacles that would be a huge contribution. Instead they’re focussed on the traditional “if you can’t win instead try to damage your opponent”.

(Siemens site seems down right now but wikipedia covers one 2001 HVDC project… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HVDC_Tian–Guang )

26

Collin Street 04.10.19 at 9:09 am

The thing is, the mechanism that lets uncoordinated private action in renewables and storage deliver sufficiently-reliable power is the same mechanism tbat lets markets clear, with the same scope and downsides. [What the programmers call hill-climbing algorithms, modelled with representative agents seeking immediate marginal advantage]. If — if — you understand markets then renewables can’t in good faith be a mystery to you.

(Also, as I’ve pointed out a couple of times, “baseload” boosters massively overestimate the negative consequences [“cost”] of plausibly-unreliable power, and that this becomes obvious when you look at the actual real-world consequences of unreliable power.)

27

Hidari 04.10.19 at 1:40 pm

@1
Telling the rich and powerful what they want to hear.

28

Omega Centauri 04.10.19 at 4:38 pm

For what its worth the Russians are delivering a floating compact Nuke to their northermost city.

https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/confidence-in-russia-floating-nuclear-timeline#gs.4h4hrb

Doesn’t sound very practical to me, but someone is doing it.

29

J-D 04.10.19 at 10:31 pm

eg

According to Wikipedia:

Pinker graduated from Dawson College in 1973. He received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from McGill University in 1976, and earned his Doctorate of Philosophy in experimental psychology at Harvard University in 1979 under Stephen Kosslyn. He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a year, after which he became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University.

From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, was the co-director of the Center for Cognitive science (1985–1994), and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive neuroscience (1994–1999), taking a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1995–96.

He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.

Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and psycholinguistics. His experimental subjects include mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention, children’s language development, regular and irregular phenomena in language, the neural bases of words and grammar, and the psychology of cooperation and communication, including euphemism, innuendo, emotional expression, and common knowledge. He has written two technical books that proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children’s learning of verbs.

30

david 04.10.19 at 11:42 pm

“is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology”

also, likes Quillette

31

Will Boisvert 04.11.19 at 1:46 am

JQ OP:

“Then suddenly, the article shifts gears, claiming that the crucial problem is irrational public fear of radiation, nuclear accidents and so forth. The obvious question to raise is: how does this supposed climate of fear manifest itself?”

Lots of ways.

1. You noted that “it might have been worth [Pinker et al.’s] mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power.” It might have been worth your mentioning that this is a textbook case of antinuclear elites ginning up irrational fear. President Moon Jae-in campaigned on a platform of shuttering the nuclear industry because of its alleged apocalyptic danger. The election was preceded by the release of a popular movie about a nuclear disaster that swayed public opinion, and Greenpeace hosted free screenings.

2. During Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attacks against the Indian Point nuclear power plant, he repeatedly went on TV and talked about having to evacuate all New York. The state’s lawsuit to stop the plant’s relicensing heavily cited a scenario written for Riverkeeper by antinuclear scholar Ed Lyman, who envisioned a terrorist attack featuring an airplane crash followed by a ground assault assisted by an inside man, with a possible death toll in the hundreds of thousands. (Cuomo may have been motivated more by political calculation than personal fear, since he gave subsidies to upstate reactors while pandering to the alarmism of downstate greens.)

3. Greenpeace occasionally stages mock terrorist infiltrations of French nuclear plants to alarm the public.

4. The NRC’s aircraft impact rule, explicitly premised on a 9/11-style terrorist attack, had a major impact on the cost of the AP1000 projects in the US. Westinghouse had to redesign the containment building to meet it, and the NRC took years to vet it, delaying the start of the project while it mulled issues like whether the building could handle a tornado as well as an airliner. Construction of the new design, a composite of concrete sandwiched between steel plates, has proven difficult and has become a major driver of costs and delays. The Chinese AP1000s have a conventional containment building, one reason they fared somewhat better.

5. The Obama Administration’s illegal suspension of the Yucca Mountain Waste Depository was pushed by opponents of the project, including Sen. Harry Reid, with disaster scenarios ranging from volcanic eruptions to, yes, terrorist attacks.

Should I go on?

32

Will Boisvert 04.11.19 at 1:57 am

JQ OP

“Perhaps they mean that we should drop all the expensive safety precautions added since 1979, and go back to Generation II technology like that used in France. If so they should say so.”

You’re not thinking right about nuclear risk and safety. Going back to cheap Gen II designs doesn’t mean jettisoning safety advances, because many of the most important ones are not embodied in the design.

–Nuclear is much safer now because of learning curves independent of technology. For example, operations have hugely improved so that plants are run and maintained better with less risk of breakdowns and accidents. We see this in the capacity factors, up from 50-60 percent in the 1970s to 90 percent now as unscheduled breakdowns have grown very rare. That’s improved operations and maintenance, and a well-run plant is a safe plant.

–We know now to stow some diesel gensets and electrical equipment on upper floors away from floodwaters. That costs nothing but it makes a plant proof against a Fukushima scenario, which, since it has happened, is one of the statistically likeliest disasters.

–We have better seismology now than in the 1960s, so we can site plants better.

–We have stronger, more corrosion-resistant steels for the reactor and primary loop than we did in the 1960s. Gen II design with better steel is a safer reactor at little additional cost.

–One important dawning safety advance is the development of accident-tolerant fuels, which are just starting to be introduced. These are modified reactor fuel pellets and rods that take longer to melt and produce less hydrogen if cooling is lost. An unfolding accident is basically a race to restore cooling before the fuel melts and the hydrogen explodes, as at Fukushima. Delaying the melt even a few hours helps win the race and has a large impact on the plant’s probabilistic safety. ATFs may reduce operating costs as well, so plants want to use them even though they are not required to. ATFs automatically makes a Gen II plant significantly safer with no redesign and no additional cost.

I could go on.

So if we were to build an Oyster Creek plant today, same design as 1969, built at $1000 per kilowatt, would that be a step backward in safety? Nope. With modern operations manuals, better seismic analysis, judiciously-placed backup cooling equipment, stronger steel and accident-tolerant fuel, the new Oyster Creek would be dramatically safer than the original, and substantially safer than almost all the reactors now running. (Which themselves are some of the safest power sources in the world.)

John, you have conceded that existing Gen II plants are safe enough to continue running. (To underscore that, they are statistically 100 times safer than coal plants, about as safe as hydro and probably about as safe as rooftop solar.) Great, now please follow that insight to its logical conclusion. There’s simply no question that building new plants on the same designs would be safe by any reasonable standard.

33

Will Boisvert 04.11.19 at 2:25 am

JQ OP

“Nor is there any evidence of significant resistance at the regulatory level, where numerous plants have had their licenses extended…. the only anti-nuclear protest I could find was back in 2011, and appeared to have no effect at all on the project.”

This is a blinkered and misleading view of the anti-nuclear movement and the regulatory state. The anti-nuclear movement is not “protesters;” it’s lawyers, environmental professors, judges, politicians and policymakers. They don’t need to protest because they control formidable levers of power. The regulatory system is not just the NRC but a broad array of politicized regulators that have power over nuclear plants and strongly influence their economics.

1. Take the closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant in California. Southern California Edison made a plan to restart one of the reactors, where heat-exchanger tube wear was actually within regulatory limits, to bring in money while repairs where made. Under heavy political pressure the NRC nixed that and required a license amendment review, which opened the door for Friends of the Earth lawyers to drag out regulatory proceedings for years while the plant sat idle—but staffed, per regulations—and bled money. For good measure, Senator Barbara Boxer, a foe of nuclear power, asked the Justice Department to start a criminal investigation of SCE executives (a request that she dropped when they agreed to retire the plant). With that kind of pressure, no wonder the plant threw in the towel.

2. The decision to close the Indian Point plant was made in the context of a legal action by the state environmental authority to force the plant to build billion-dollar cooling towers because of (trumped-up) water-quality issues in the Hudson River. That looming regulatory expense weighed heavily in the “economic” decision to shutter the still quite profitable plant, part of Entergy’s strategy of exiting the nuke-hostile Northeast.

3. Water-quality regulations and cooling tower threats have been used against many plants. Oyster Creek closed last year because the state of New Jersey threatened to impose cooling towers (although terrorist attacks were also mentioned in the proceedings). The plant struck an agreement that let it stay in operation until 2019 in exchange for shutting down ten years before its license expired.

The Diablo Canyon retirement decision was also reached in the middle of a water-quality proceeding that could have imposed cooling towers costing up to $10 billion, which was cited by PGE as a major factor in the “economic” case against continued operation.

The water-quality issue—nuclear cooling-water intake kills a lot of plankton and small fry and slightly warms the water—is a lot like the issue of wind farms killing thousands of raptors and bats every year. The difference is that wind turbines have been exempted from regulations protecting raptors and bats, while nukes are hounded by regulators for killing plankton.

4. Anti-nuke organizations in many instances exercise quasi-governmental regulatory power themselves.

A glaring example of this is Diablo Canyon. The anti-nuclear groups Friends of the Earth and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility were formally included, along with Pacific Gas and Electric, in a state-selected panel debating whether to impose cooling towers on the plant. Also included was an RE-technology NGO with executives from the RE industry, who are direct competitors of DC, on its board. None of these groups have any relevant expertise in marine ecology, the substance of the issue, and at least one had substantial material conflicts of interest. Nonetheless, the anti-nukes were right there in the inner counsels of the regulatory state deliberating on the plant’s fate.

Then came the decision to close the plant. This was not, as you might imagine, an agreement between DC and the state utility commission or the environmental regulator. It was an agreement between the plant’s owner PGE and a group of private parties, including the anti-nuclear groups FOE, NRDC and A4NR and a union local representing the workers who would be axed. PGE agreed to close the plant in 2024-5 in exchange for the anti-nuke groups dropping their lawsuits and supporting compensation payments to the company, cost recovery for stranded assets, which they would normally fight to the death, and a reprieve from cooling towers. The state utility commission’s only role was to rubber-stamp the agreement, which they duly did although they voided the weak provisions to replace a small part of the plant’s output with RE. Thus died a great public resource of clean energy at the hands of private, unaccountable but well-connected green ideologues making decisions that should be made by neutral state regulators with the public interest in mind.

In California the anti-nuclear movement is the regulatory state. Jerry Brown was an anti-nuclear activist. Gavin Newsom is anti-nuclear. Michael Picker, President of the California Public Utility Commission, is anti-nuclear. John Geesman, a lawyer for A4NR, is a former member of the California Energy Commission.

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Will Boisvert 04.11.19 at 2:53 am

JQ 16

“For existing nukes, economic viability relative to coal and gas would be improved by a carbon price. But that wouldn’t make new nukes competitive with renewables, even after adding in storage.”

Huh? What does this even mean? How much storage are you talking about, with which technology and at what price? I hope you’re not talking about batteries because even a modest and totally inadequate reserve of battery storage would price wind and solar out of contention.

Let’s look at the German grid to get a feel for just how huge the costs of battery storage would be.

Germany would have to build roughly 400 GW of wind and solar for those sectors to produce its total yearly electricity generation of about 600 terrawatt-hours. But RE famines are severe and would shut down virtually all of that massive capacity on bad days like January 24, when wind and solar together produced just 2.8 percent of their nameplate capacity. Even with 400 GW of wind and solar capacity on hand and all of Germany’s hydro and biomass going full tilt, that would have left a shortfall of 1,176 gigawatt-hours, 72 percent of the day’s demand, unmet. Lithium battery storage currently costs about $400 per kilowatt hour installed; at that price the required storage on Jan. 24 would cost $470 billion just for the capital cost of the batteries, electricity not included.

If we spent that money on nuclear instead we could build 100 gigawatts of APR1400 reactors and completely decarbonize the German grid with plenty left over for other sectors, no blackouts and no fossil fuels and no biomass burning, at an initial price of 6-7 cents per kwh, and a 60-year average of 3-4 cents per kwh. That’s pretty cheap. Wind and solar would be more expensive once we charge the capital cost of the batteries to them.

But that’s not enough storage. Jan. 24 came towards the end of a week-long wind and solar famine when those sectors together produced just 7.6 percent of nameplate capacity. During those seven days total German RE generation, hydro plus biomass plus 1,350 gigawatt-hours of wind and solar, would have fallen short of demand by 8,900 gigawatt-hours. Battery storage to bridge that gap would cost $3.6 trillion. Even with drastic price reductions, batteries will be far too expensive to deploy on that scale. And it’s still not enough, because even larger cumulative deficits open up across the winter months.

The logic of weather-dependent unreliability is remorseless. It’s just not feasible to build enough turbines and panels and batteries to solve the problem. Storage will remain a short-term niche grid function, and wind and solar will stay dependent on fossil-fueled backup.

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Will Boisvert 04.11.19 at 2:55 am

@Matt 9

“If both tariffs and investment tax credits are zeroed out, I foresee large scale solar generation growing robustly in the US and nuclear projects still not competing. Absent coordinated national action against emissions, renewables/batteries/gas are going to replace all of the elderly coal generators that are dying off in the US. Even with coordinated action against emissions, nuclear is the higher-cost option that will be viable only after cheaper gains at the margin with renewables have been exhausted.”

So the consensus in this discussion is that nuclear is too expensive, wind and solar are cheap, grid expansion and storage will solve the problem of unreliability, Steven Pinker should shut up.

Now a reality check.

Matt, you’re right, wind and especially solar PPAs in the US are getting sensationally cheap, in the 2-3 cents per kwh range for some solar projects. Unfortunately, that’s having no effect on the growth of RE, which has stagnated over the last 3 years and declined sharply last year.

In 2016 the US total non-hydro RE generation grew by about 52 twh, in 2017 by 50 twh and in 2018 by 40 twh, 20 percent less than in 2017. Wind and solar account for virtually all that growth. Solar grew 16 twh in 2016, 22 in 2017 and 19 in 2018, with non-utility staying flat at about 5 twh each year and utility solar growth dropping from about 17 twh in 2017 to 13 twh in 2018. Wind growth was 36 twh in 2016, 27 twh in 2017 and 21 twh in 2018, so a persistent slowdown in growth.

Wind and solar are growing and helping abate carbon, but with such low PPA prices one would expect them to be growing by leaps and bounds. Instead, they are trudging along, even flagging.

Maybe Trump’s solar tariffs are to blame, but wind had an even sharper slowdown with no tariffs. And it’s not clear that the tariffs are making much difference. PPAs are very low despite tariffs. And much of the growth in RE is probably not too price-sensitive because it is driven by state RPS mandates that utilities have to meet regardless of cost.

It’s also not a depressed market; last year electricity consumption grew substantially, up 143 twh, for the first time in years. Most of that rise was supplied by natural gas, up 172 twh, which also replaced a chunk of coal generation, which dropped 59 twh. Total fossil-fueled electricity rose 115 twh in 2018, almost three times as much as wind plus solar (hydro shrank by 9 twh), and FFs’ share of the US electricity supply edged up from 62.9 percent to 63.5 percent.

I’m not seeing robust growth for wind and solar there. I’m seeing an avid market for fossil fuels, a grudging acceptance of wind and solar, per subsidies and mandates, and a frozen market for nuclear and hydro.

WS growth is stagnating globally as well. 2018 wind installations were 53.9 GW, barely up from 2017’s 52.6 GW and well down from 2015’s peak of 63.7 GW. 2018 solar growth did tick up to 109 GW after 2017’s 99 gw, (the equivalent of maybe 20 dispatchable gw) but that’s not much acceleration, and it’s well short of what’s needed to curb fossil-fuel growth, which easily outpaced WS again last year with strongly rising emissions.

So the conundrum: wind and solar are super-cheap, but they are not catching fire in electricity markets. Why not?

I think they are just not very valuable as electricity sources. Greens and econ profs may not think reliability matters, but utilities and grid planners do, which is why they prefer coal and gas to WS with a cheaper PPA. An indicator of this is curtailment and negative pricing, an increasing problem that means that the grid thinks a growing portion of WS output is worth less than nothing.

Storage and grid expansion won’t solve the problem. Their growth is in fact a bad sign. Hundreds of billions of dollars that should be spent on building clean power sources are being diverted to non-generating infrastructure to cope with the instability of wind and solar output, which is becoming disruptive at a mere 5 percent penetration of global electricity supply. As that diversion grows it will crowd out more investment in WS generators. But it won’t stop developing countries with rising electricity demand from investing heavily in fossil fueled plants: WS is nice, but reliable power is a necessity. So WS is helping out, but it is falling further behind fossil fuels and not making a dent in emissions. That won’t change for a while.

And yeah, Matt, it is possible to do a stable grid with WS and plenty of gas capacity and a little storage. That’s not going to get you to 100 percent carbon free, but it will be a lot cleaner. The problem is that we have green thought leaders like AOC hectoring us that we have to go 100 percent by 2030 or the world will end–and do it without nuclear because that’s too risky!–while in the fine print we see that their strategy will still have quite a bit of gas. Compared to that narrative, Steven Pinker’s is the soul of reason.

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faustusnotes 04.11.19 at 8:47 am

Will’s comments are obviously too many and too extensive to reply to but I’d like to address one tiny detail, as an example of how much Will exaggerates certain issues. He points out that Moon Jae-in campaigned on opposition to nuclear power, with the obvious implication that he benefited politically from this and it was a very important part of his program.

Moon Jae-in replaced Park Geun-hye. Moon Jae-in could have campaigned on a platform of pretty much anything at all and he would have won, because Park Geun-Hye was forced out of office by a massive corruption scandal that completely destroyed her and her party’s credibility. Moon Jae-in could have promised to install a nuclear reactor in every Korean family’s loungeroom and he still would have won the election.

I should also remind the interested reader that a few months back Will was on here arguing that the nuclear industry should have a safety and regulatory framework more like the airline industry, because the lighter regulatory touch of the airline industry with its private incentives works beautifully. Since then we have discovered the 737 MAX scandal, so I’m not sure his judgments on safety and regulatory policy are entirely solid.

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Raven Onthill 04.11.19 at 8:52 am

It is uncomfortably true that when people are desperate, they will pay more for a service. Nuclear power is uneconomical now, but in a desperate world this may not be so.

It is also uncomfortably true that we have not done the studies that would allow us to say with confidence that wind and solar will be enough.

I am not aware of anyone running the numbers. We have guesswork on deploying renewables extensively. We have only a prototype smart grid, which renewables demand. Research on new nuclear technologies is largely design; few prototypes are being constructed. If it were in my power I would put my old colleagues at the national labs on the job and get some numbers worked out. Above all, we need to get started.

I am starting to feel like we are looking at FFexit. As the deadline gets nearer and nearer, we panic, but we do not know what to do.

Here, have some barking sea lions.

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Moz of Yarramulla 04.11.19 at 9:48 am

Raven, that’s literally the argument from ignorance: “I am not aware of anyone running the numbers”.

New Zealand and Norway both have almost 100% renewable grids, as does Iceland. Sure, they’re all small, rich countries but they also have working electricity grids and I’m not sure the correlation runs “only rich countries can afford renewables”.

In Australia we’re up to I think four different groups have run the numbers and concluded that Australia can get at least 80% of its electricity from renewables, especially if we assume that transport becomes widely electrified (plugging in all those batteries *helps* rather than hinders, making 100% renewable easy if there are enough electric cars… and enough means somewhere between IIRC 30% and 80% of the current number but those numbers are soft because we’re dealing with experimental technologies).

IMO what makes this stuff hard in the US is the obsession with distributed ownership and independent mini-grids with commercially operated interconnects. Arguably that proves that you can screw anything up if you try hard enough, just as we see with the AEMO in Australia. Prof Quiggin has some experience with the latter.

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eg 04.11.19 at 12:09 pm

Many thanks to those among you who took the time to respond to my query regarding what Pinker reliably is and is not.

I have not read his popular works, but the message that comes across from those in my social circle who refer to him in support of their arguments, he is a latter day Professor Pangloss.

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casmilus 04.11.19 at 12:39 pm

As I recall from reading about the Manhattan Project in Hist. Of Science many years ago, the Du Pont company ran the original Oak Ridge facility, or something related… and decided right after the war to have nothing to do with civilian development of the technology.

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Cian 04.11.19 at 12:48 pm

I live in South Carolina and knew quite a few of the people who were working on the failed power plant. It failed due to a combination of engineering, management and construction inadequacies. Having spent quite a bit of time looking into the reasons for it’s failures the conclusion I’ve drawn is that the US does not have the managerial, bureacratic and construction competence to deliver nuclear power economically (unlike France in the 70s, say). And incidentally, this power plant received huge subsidies and was designed in such a way that the cost of financing was extremely low. If it had succeeded – hell if it had succeeded at the original cost, we would have been locked into expensive power.

Secondly, let’s say somehow the US learns how to do expensive infrastructure projects. Well there’s a further problem – nuclear power delivers expensive and inflexible energy. As a partner to renewables it’s useless because you can’t substitute nuclear for renewable energy. A nuclear power station cannot be spun up quickly, or shut down quickly. This means that they run 24 hours generating the same amount of power. Practically this means you have two choices:
1) Limit generation to your lowest load (during the night hours)
2) Build more capacity than you can use during the night, knowing that energy will not be used (thus raising the cost of each MW)

So nuclear is either a small part of the solution (option 1), or a wasteful solution (option 2).

And yes I get it – there are a bunch of unproven technologies just round the corner which will: “yada, yada – have you seen my flying car”. Nuclear is the ultimate “this time it will be different” technology. Yet somehow it always disappoints.

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Cian 04.11.19 at 12:52 pm

I am starting to feel like we are looking at FFexit. As the deadline gets nearer and nearer, we panic, but we do not know what to do.

The sad thing is we do, but there’s little political will, or interest. The west, and the US in particular, are hugely wasteful users of energy. Very successful energy reduction technologies exist, are proven and can be deployed at scale (I mean just insulating the housing stock in the US would be huge). We just don’t use them for a variety of reasons, or which the main one is capitalism. Because it would require large government programs and giving poor people stuff (and also would massively reduce the profits of private power companies who lobby hard against this stuff).

Nuclear is frankly nostalgia for people who grew up on Robert Heinlein.

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steven t johnson 04.11.19 at 1:33 pm

Norway and Iceland are nearly 100% renewable? Does that mean hydroelectric and geothermal count as renewables again?

What are the estimates for the long-term effects of mining, transporting and assembling the materials for a much larger energy grid?

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Will Boisvert 04.11.19 at 5:33 pm

OOPS!

I made an error in my calculation of battery costs at 34, a small one in the case of one day’s storage, a large one in the case of one week’s storage. I used total electricity generation for demand, which is wrong because of exports. I also just made a big math error—of $2 trillion!–in the weekly tally. Nonetheless, this doesn’t change my conclusion that battery costs are insupportable. Here’s the corrected versions.

“Even with 400 GW of wind and solar capacity on hand and all of Germany’s hydro and biomass going full tilt, that would have left a shortfall of 1,122 gigawatt-hours, 71 percent of the day’s demand, unmet. Lithium battery storage currently costs about $400 per kilowatt hour installed; at that price the required storage on Jan. 24 would cost $449 billion just for the capital cost of the batteries, electricity not included.”

“During those seven days total German RE generation, hydro plus biomass plus 5,094 gigawatt-hours of wind and solar, would have fallen short of demand by 4,081 gigawatt-hours. Battery storage to bridge that gap would cost $1.6 trillion. Even with drastic price reductions, batteries will be far too expensive to deploy on that scale. And it’s still not enough, because even larger cumulative deficits open up across the winter months.”

Lesson learned: sleep.

Deepest apologies for the errors, but I stand by my argument that batteries are way too expensive to make wind and solar reliable.

Data from Fraunhofer Energy Charts.

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Matt 04.11.19 at 7:35 pm

So the consensus in this discussion is that nuclear is too expensive, wind and solar are cheap, grid expansion and storage will solve the problem of unreliability, Steven Pinker should shut up.

That’s not my position. It’s more like “the less expensive options will be used first.” In states with mandates to decarbonize, solar and wind are the least expensive way to make progress for the foreseeable future. I agree that decarbonizing electricity with renewables gets much more expensive as the fossil component approaches 0%, because it would require vast storage (e.g. underground caverns storing renewable hydrogen) to cover seasonal imbalances in production/consumption.

Perhaps seasonal-scale storage with renewables can’t be economized and additional nuclear power, despite high absolute costs, becomes relatively more affordable than seasonal storage as fossil share approaches 0%. I’m not rejecting that possibility! But I also don’t see any American grid where the crossover has already happened and could justify new nuclear projects starting this year.

American solar growth last year was blunted because the price shock from Section 201 tariffs caused some projects planned in 2017 to delay construction. Both the ITC rates and tariff rates decline yearly through 2021. By 2022 the solar ITC extension will be over and so will be the tariffs. I expect robust growth then, because there’s a longer term trend toward lowering capital and operational costs for large scale solar projects. The PPAs being contracted this year are a sign of what’s to come. If I’m wrong in a few years, I will happily admit where I erred and update my predictions accordingly.

Wind capital costs have been pretty flat for the past few years, unlike the declining costs seen in solar, so I’m not surprised that installations have been flat too. The most interesting current development in American wind is the planning of large offshore projects by states that don’t have good onshore wind resources. Costs per MWh will be higher than onshore projects in the central US, but perhaps still worth it for densely populated coastal areas.

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Raven Onthill 04.12.19 at 3:44 am

Moz, you couldn’t know, but I used to work at one of the US national labs, and I’m one handshake away from people who do this work. If anyone has run the numbers for the USA in detail, likely I would know.

Australia is large, empty, and gets a great deal of sunlight, so maybe it pencils there. Please cite specifics. In the USA? I don’t think anyone knows.

What I don’t want to do is get to the breaking point and come up short. I don’t want to be advisor to the leader who has to say “Sorry, we’re going on short rations for a generation. Oh, and by the way, we can’t afford to heat everyone’s houses, so double up.”

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Area Man 04.12.19 at 5:22 am

An indicator of this is curtailment and negative pricing, an increasing problem that means that the grid thinks a growing portion of WS output is worth less than nothing.

Storage and grid expansion won’t solve the problem. Their growth is in fact a bad sign. Hundreds of billions of dollars that should be spent on building clean power sources are being diverted to non-generating infrastructure to cope with the instability of wind and solar output…

This is nonsensical. If the marginal value of additional solar or wind energy is zero in a given area, then building storage or expanding the grid is building a clean power source, because they can draw on zero-cost energy. A storage facility in effect is just another power plant. How could it not solve the problem?

All that matters is the sum cost of renewables + storage, which appears to be close to if not already cheaper than conventional sources. And those costs are continuing to decline rapidly.

48

Another Nick 04.12.19 at 11:18 am

Will: “During those seven days total German RE generation, hydro plus biomass plus 1,350 gigawatt-hours of wind and solar, would have fallen short of demand by 8,900 gigawatt-hours. “

This is miles out. It looks like you used the figures for the week of Jan 24th using current capacity, forgetting your examples were supposed to be based on 400GW of wind and solar in the future.

49

Cian 04.12.19 at 12:30 pm

For anyone who’s wondering if they should take Will seriously, here’s a fun fact about nuclear. It requires energy storage solutions if it is to be ramped up beyond the base load because you can’t ramp them up and down in response to energy demand on the grid. In the past it was pumped hydro, which is super cheap and practical. If you want to scale up nuclear generation then you also have to ramp up energy storage, or accept that you will be pointlessly generating energy much of the time (thus raising the cost per MW).

And for large scale energy storage nobody that I know of is seriously considering Lithium. Leading technologies include thermal storage (which may become something houses can use), compressed air/gas, hydrogen and flywheels. Focusing on lithium is what you would do if you were either ignorant, or deliberately constructing a dishonest argument.

Also I have no idea what he’s getting at with the grid. We have an expanded grid today in both the EU and the US (which is why one of my clients will occasionally buy energy for Florida from New England when trading conditions get really bad). The problem with them are transmission losses. We have the technologies to significantly reduce those losses which would be a really good idea because REDUCING ENERGY LOSSES IS A REALLY GOOD IDEA.

The sad truth of power generation is that there is only one good solution, natural gas powered generators: flexible, pretty efficient and cheap (oh and bad for the environment – nothing’s perfect). Every other solution has a host of problems, that require additional engineering solutions to address (this is actually a significant reason for the decline of coal).

So focusing on the engineering problems that surround renewable energy, while ignoring those that surround nuclear is pretty dishonest.

One additional point – nuclear is a terrible partner for renewable energy. Let’s say that wind collapses all over Europe and you need additional power. Well nuclear isn’t going to help because it takes at least a day to spin one up.

50

Cian 04.12.19 at 12:31 pm

The comment about pumped hydro above was of course sarcasm. Great solution in many ways, but expensive and limited.

51

Another Nick 04.12.19 at 1:00 pm

Will, I missed your OOPS! I see you picked up on the error.

“Battery storage to bridge that gap would cost $1.6 trillion.”

Which is $53.3 billion a year over thirty years, or 1.5% of Germany’s GDP. That doesn’t sound that much, given the private sector will be doing a lot of the spending, and it’s less than half the amount Germany currently spends per year on electricity consumption, solar panels, and wind turbines put together.

With coal being phased out, renewables + storage is guaranteed to be profitable. The money everyone used to pay to coal power companies, now goes to …

52

WLGR 04.12.19 at 1:02 pm

@24: the David Golumbia article at Open Democracy I linked @4 is a good entry point to what I find most problematic about Chomsky’s work, namely his insistence on a sharp boundary between a narrowly individual-centered view of human nature at the cognitive and linguistic level on the one hand, versus a vaguely socialistic anarcho-syndicalist view of human nature at the cultural and political level on the other hand, and his insistence that the one has essentially nothing to say about the other. As far as Pinker’s Chomskyan bona fides, his public intellectual output starting with Better Angels has little to do with any kind of science at all and is often laughable on straightforward empirical grounds that Chomsky is well able to contest without recourse to theory, for example citing solid empirical counterarguments from the likes of Brian Ferguson, but Better Angels and even Enlightenment Now are far from the most problematic and reactionary part of Pinker’s ouevre — that would be his earlier book The Blank Slate, written right around when his public intellectual output was starting to diverge from his prior scholarly background, a book in which he sketches out a generic “Santa Barbara church” interpretation of evopsych doctrine using intellectual raw materials from his established Chomskyan cognitive-scientific view of how the mind works, then in the process touts the utility of this approach as a barricade against the nefarious scourge of PoMo politically-correct Cultural Marxism and whatnot (again, insert here all the modern alt-right buzzwords you can think of) allegedly inherent in the modern social sciences.

In so many words, Pinker’s trajectory makes an excellent object lesson that taking Chomskyan cognitive science seriously as a theory with political implications (and it’s to Pinker’s credit that he’s at least willing to do this much) is liable to produce some pretty unsettling hard-right ideological outcomes even in people who might otherwise think of themselves as liberal or leftist, and this seems to me like the most obvious potential reason why Chomsky is so adamantly dualistic about separating those two areas of his own ouevre in the first place.

@30: wedged right between Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray is really the perfect spot for him, don’t you think?

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congdan 04.12.19 at 2:56 pm

@52. What “theory” are you referring to? Social Studies (aka “Social Science”) mandarins would do better to couch their ideas in non-Science dick-envy terms.

David Golumbia by blurbing the embarassingly “Not Even Wrong” Chris Knight is hard to take seriously any longer for anything outside his particular area of expertise:

https://www.chrisknight.co.uk/category/noam_chomsky
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/letters

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Ogden Wernstrom 04.12.19 at 6:00 pm

…antinuclear scholar Ed Lyman…

Made two questions come to mind:
1. Which schools offer courses in antinuclear studies?

2. Does antinuclear scholarship pay as well as pronuclear shilling?

2a. Does either field pay by-the-word?
2b. …or is there a per-post or -publication, possibly requiring a minimum ratio of paragraphs written per line critiqued?
2c. …or is there just a flat rate per thread derailment or Gish Gallop?

That was five, actually. It just goes to show you, sis semper erras.

55

bidrec 04.12.19 at 6:10 pm

“claiming that the crucial problem is [ir]rational public fear …and so forth.”
New Yorkers and other Lilco bond holders will remember the Shoreham disaster: Build a reactor and don’t turn it on and then the contortions that William J. Catacosinos, the Lilco chairman and trained economist went through to make sure that the bonds were ultimately paid. The climate of fear would be manifest at the underwriter level–it is a bad investment. You cannot build what you cannot finance.

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Omega Centauri 04.12.19 at 7:27 pm

We keep seeing the dishonest attempt to worst case storage as impossible. For one thing a reasonable cost for future large scale battery storage capacity is probably $100/KWhour. Already in some places utility scale solar plus four hours of battery storage is being built. It looks like batt storage may well be usable for periods of around 4hours. Good for covering the evening peak load with daytime solar, and maybe a good chuck of the night, but not going to cover for a string of cloudy days. But, solar is getting so cheap that overbuild is affordable, even on a cloudy day solar delivers 10-50%, so a solar overbuild means that the actual deficit is much lower than just taking max demand and multiplying it by a several day stretch of bad weather. Also multiple longer term storage solutions which have lower round trip energy efficiencies are being seriously looked at. Its not just hydrogen, Ammonia might also be a contender. Germany thinks they might be able to cheaply replace coal boiler with molten salt thermal storage tanks. With resistance heating the round trip efficiency is allegedly 40%, 60% if you use heat pumps. There are other irons in the fire for longer term storage too.
Key takeaways are:
(1) Overbuild of solar and probably wind is affordable, and this reduces power/energy deficits during periods of unfavorable weather.
(2) Any large scale storage system will use more than one type of storage, with high quality efficient and fast responding storage probably consisting of batteries, but less efficient and not likely rapid response storage used to cover extended power deficits.
(3) The large the energy trading region is, the better the climate statistics with respect to longterm energy deficits will be.
(4) Extended deficits can be predicted days ahead of time, so rapidly responding storage isn’t needed for these assets.

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Will Boisvert 04.12.19 at 9:50 pm

Cian 49, 41

1. “For anyone who’s wondering if they should take Will seriously, here’s a fun fact about nuclear. It requires energy storage solutions if it is to be ramped up beyond the base load because you can’t ramp them up and down in response to energy demand on the grid”

More like a fun fallacy. French nuclear plants ramp up and down on an hourly basis to follow load. The EPR reactor can ramp up and down at a rate of 2.5 percent per minute between 25 percent and 60 percent of nameplate power, and at 5 percent per minute between 60 percent and 100 percent rated power. It can ramp from 25 percent to full power in less than 30 minutes. That’s almost as fast as a gas plant.

“The sad truth of power generation is that there is only one good solution, natural gas powered generators: flexible, pretty efficient and cheap (oh and bad for the environment – nothing’s perfect)…. One additional point – nuclear is a terrible partner for renewable energy. Let’s say that wind collapses all over Europe and you need additional power. Well nuclear isn’t going to help because it takes at least a day to spin one up.”

So you’re saying that instead we should burn gas when wind collapses. Of course the premise is false; nuclear can spin up in minutes. But the deeper question is why we are expected to ramp down nuclear in the first place to accommodate wind; that does nothing to abate carbon. The real problem is that wind is a terrible partner for nuclear. So how about doing it the other way round? Just curtail wind when it overproduces and threatens to destabilize the grid, and let the nuclear plant run full steam 24/7/365. Then there won’t be any (specious) questions about ramping, and we won’t have to burn gas.

2. “Also I have no idea what he’s getting at with the grid. We have an expanded grid today in both the EU and the US (which is why one of my clients will occasionally buy energy for Florida from New England when trading conditions get really bad).”

Germany is spending tens of billions of euros building high-voltage lines from the windy north to the industrial south. Its population and electricity use are stagnant; it is expanding the grid solely and explicitly to accommodate surges in wind power. All that expense would be unnecessary if there were no wind power, so it should be charged to the system costs of the wind turbines. That’s what I’m getting at.

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Will Boisvert 04.12.19 at 10:03 pm

Another Nick 51,
““Battery storage to bridge that gap would cost $1.6 trillion.”
Which is $53.3 billion a year over thirty years, or 1.5% of Germany’s GDP. That doesn’t sound that much, given the private sector will be doing a lot of the spending, and it’s less than half the amount Germany currently spends per year on electricity consumption, solar panels, and wind turbines put together.”
Fair point, Germany could indeed build 4,081 GWh of batteries over 30 years.

But that’s not enough storage. Weekly capacity factors for the wind and solar sectors combined have dipped under 6 percent in past years, below the 7.6 percent CF in my calculation. If 6 percent happened, the wind and solar sectors would only contribute 4,032 gwh, which, with 1,295 Gwh of hydro and bio against about 10,500 gwh of weekly demand, would leave a storage requirement of about 5,100 gwh, costing $2 trillion.

But that’s not enough storage. Suppose a 6 percent week 1 is followed by a 10 percent CF week 2, with a further RE deficit of 2,400 gwh. Then Germany needs a total of 7,500 gwh of batteries, costing $3 trillion.

But that’s not enough storage. We’re assuming the batteries are full when week 1 starts. But what if they are coming off a lackluster December and starting week 1 just half full? Then we’ll need an additional 3,750 gwh of storage, bringing the total to 11,250 gwh of batteries costing $4.5 trillion.

None of these scenarios are outlandish, and grid planners will have to have storage on hand to cope with them, and worse, or else blackouts.

(We’re also assuming batteries last 30 years. Elon Musk reckons a 15-year life-span for his power-pack batteries, which would mean two rounds of batteries.)

Still, Germans could build the batteries. But would they?

RE has negative politics as well as positive. Germany drastically slowed its solar installations in recent years in part to keep a lid on electricity costs. It still has near the highest power prices in Europe, and business is stridently complaining about it. It’s possible that even German support for RE will flag if costs associated with it go much higher. Outside Germany, the yellow vest riots, touched off by a carbon tax increase, show that there is a limit to how much money people will pay for RE.

And should Germany build batteries? No; from an economic standpoint it should build nuclear instead. These calculations were provoked by JQ’s claim that nuclear is more expensive than WS with storage. If we’re talking batteries, that claim is definitely wrong. (It’s wrong with other kinds of storage, but batteries are the next big thing so let’s do them.)

Even if heroic price reductions bring the cost of the batteries down from the current $4.5 trillon to, say $1 trillion, nuclear is way cheaper. Assuming WS capacity at $1000 per kw, the total cost of 400 GW WS plus batteries would be $1.4 trillion to supply about 600 terrawatt-hours per year. But we could build 90 GW of nuclear and decarbonize the whole German grid, baseload to peak, with very reliable power, no blackouts or combustion of any kind. Even at $10,000 per gw, that’s $900 billion, over a third cheaper than the cost of WS plus batteries. At $4,000 per GW, the cost of nuclear in South Korea, that would cost $360 billion, about a quarter of the cost of a WS plus battery system that is less reliable and productive. That’s just $12 billion a year over 30 years. Germany can afford that.

There’s no getting around it: if you want a reliable, carbon-free grid, nuclear is cheaper than WS plus battery storage.

–“With coal being phased out, renewables + storage is guaranteed to be profitable.”

Yes, Germany is phasing out coal—by 2038, 8 years after the world will end according to AOC.

59

Will Boisvert 04.12.19 at 10:08 pm

Cian 41,

1. “The US does not have the managerial, bureacratic and construction competence to deliver nuclear power economically (unlike France in the 70s, say).”

France didn’t have a nuclear industry until the 1970s, but they managed to train one up right quick. Same with the US. There was no significant nuclear construction industry in the US before the mid-1960s, yet Oyster Creek, one of the first plants, was finished in 1969 at a cost of $1000 per kw, very cheap.

The problem is not competence but simply that nowadays nuclear is over-regulated, from the gold-plated designs down to the basics of concreting and welding, which under NQA strictures are maniacally over-burdened with regulation and paperwork. The latter leads to delays and slow work and rework of tiny details and cost overruns.

2. “Nuclear is the ultimate “this time it will be different” technology.”

No, the argument is more like, “this time, it will be the same.” Same as the cheap, rapid buildout of early US nuclear, same as the cheap, rapid buildout of French nuclear, same as the cheap, rapid buildout of Korean nuclear, same as the cheap, rapid buildout of Chinese nuclear… If the technology is freed from the strangling overregulation and actively hostile government policy it suffers nowadays, it will post the same good performance as the historical norm. You’re cherry-picking the failures without looking at the history of successful performance.

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Will Boisvert 04.12.19 at 10:21 pm

Cian 49,

“And for large scale energy storage nobody that I know of is seriously considering Lithium. Leading technologies include thermal storage (which may become something houses can use), compressed air/gas, hydrogen and flywheels. Focusing on lithium is what you would do if you were either ignorant, or deliberately constructing a dishonest argument.”

OK, Cian, but tell that to the numberless greens, many on this blog, who insist that batteries are the solution, and to all the utilities that are investing in them and all the governments that are mandating them.

All the storage forms you ticked off have drawbacks of cost, scalability, efficiency or sustainability—CAES burns natural gas!—and most haven’t gotten beyond a few demonstrations projects or drawing-board concepts. CAES, flywheels, hydrogen have all been around for decades or centuries; if they worked well they probably would have caught on by now, the way batteries have. There’s a market for storage.

If you think any of these will work, then specify: How much storage does it need to provide to a WS system without FF; which technology; how much will it scale; how much will it cost. Will it see Germany through a bad winter?

61

Will Boisvert 04.12.19 at 10:31 pm

Area Man 47

“If the marginal value of additional solar or wind energy is zero in a given area, then building storage or expanding the grid is building a clean power source, because they can draw on zero-cost energy. A storage facility in effect is just another power plant.”

Storage isn’t a net energy source, it just shifts the time energy is released into the grid. After subtracting storage losses, it’s a net energy sink. And it’s not clean if it’s storing coal-fired electricity. Most of the large utility-scale batteries you read about are not “firming” solar and wind; they are storing grid power, which has some RE but also includes nuclear, coal, gas, whatever is on the grid when the battery is charging.

It’s true that if a wind or solar farm is being curtailed, adding storage for curtailed output will increase the plant’s total output, or rather restore it to its maximum; in that sense the added storage is functioning to increase useful electricity production. But we should regard that as part of the generating plant, not as an independent energy source. Unfortunately, storage in non-trivial amounts is expensive and impairs the plant’s economics.

On the grid scale, utilities used to be able to invest all their WS money in new generators because penetrations were low enough to avoid grid problems or curtailment, so they were getting the maximum WS energy for their money. To the extent that they now also have to invest in storage and expanded transmission, which are net energy sinks, to cope with WS instability and curtailment, that will take away from the pot of money for new RE generators and act as a brake on RE growth. We’ve seen this happen in Germany, China, elsewhere.

It’s just common sense. As WS penetrations grow more money needs to be spent on infrastructure to integrate it, which will crowd out some investment in the WS generators themselves.

62

Will Boisvert 04.12.19 at 10:33 pm

Matt 45

“American solar growth last year was blunted because the price shock from Section 201 tariffs caused some projects planned in 2017 to delay construction. Both the ITC rates and tariff rates decline yearly through 2021. By 2022 the solar ITC extension will be over and so will be the tariffs. I expect robust growth then, because there’s a longer term trend toward lowering capital and operational costs for large scale solar projects.”

The latest NREL estimates reckon utility-scale solar costs in 2018 rose all of 0.9 percent over 2017 for single-axis PV; not much of a price shock. (Fixed-tilt rose 1.9 percent, residential and commercial costs declined.) Single-axis costs averaged $1,113 per kw, $780 after the ITC, so still very cheap. If a shock that feeble threw the industry off its stride, it doesn’t bode well for its profitability or prospects.

My guess is that the very low PPAs are not indicative of true costs.

That will especially be true for utilities. For them increasingly the PPA is just a small part of a larger infrastructure package. A lot of utilities are talking about replacing coal with WS. But what they are really looking at in that case is not just a PPA, but potentially new transmission lines to handle WS gluts; short-term firming battery storage; definitely new gas capacity to actually run the grid and pipelines to supply it (and lawyers to battle the anti-fracking activists in court). As PPAs fall they become less relevant to investment decisions while that “auxiliary” infrastructure grows more important.

Time will tell.

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Collin Street 04.12.19 at 11:17 pm

Will, I had a reasonably long post three-quarters — half, really — written that set out exactly why you were doing things wrong and what you could do to improve your own happiness, but I deleted it because in the final analysis it didn’t actually need to be said at that length or in that detail.

Short form: write less think more.

Also: if you come out of a conversation with the same knowledge and beliefs that you went into the conversation with, you’ve gained nothing and cost yourself time. To “lose”, to change your mind, is to win, is the only win.

64

Matt 04.13.19 at 1:34 am

To make my prediction more specific, I predict that solar electricity generation in the United States will grow by at least 33 TWh in 2022. That number would be determined from the same reference point Will used up-thread, the Electric Power Monthly Table 1.1.A, Net Generation from Renewable Sources: Total (All Sectors). I am including all utility-scale solar generation plus small scale photovoltaic generation. For comparison, the best-so-far year was 2017, when the solar ITC was 30% and there were no special tariffs on solar equipment. 2017 showed growth of 27.588 TWh over 2016.

Why such a specific number? According to the IAEA, the United States saw the fastest nuclear generation growth in the 1980s (see Table 3). From 1980 to 1990 nuclear generation went from 251.1 TWh to 576.9 TWh, an annualized growth rate of 32.6 TWh. I predict that solar output growth will surpass that rate in the 2020s.

65

faustusnotes 04.13.19 at 2:34 am

Will, have you spoken to any indigenous Americans about the pollution of their water supplies by uranium miners and the consequences for their health? I suggest you try that.

You say that nuclear is “over regulated” and I wonder, what level of regulation do you think would be more appropriate? The level of your commercial aircraft industry, which has just seen an entire fleet of aircraft grounded because of safety issues? The level of your food industry, with its regular nationwide outbreaks of salmonella and e. coli that don’t happen in other developed nations? The level of your prison industry, where people are smearing desperate messages on the walls of their cells in their own blood? The level of your mining industry, where a man who went to prison for corporate manslaughter is running for a senate position with your pro-business party? The level of your media industry, where one of the major providers regularly allows videos of mass murder to be circulated and where one of its major players has incited a nationwide movement to harass the parents of dead children? The level of your mercenary industry, which is in league with a foreign power and gets away with actual murder on the streets of foreign cities? Or maybe you prefer the model offered by your small arms industry? Which lower level of regulation do you think is appropriate for the nuclear industry?

I don’t know how to tell you this nicely, but you live in a failing state. In 10 years it will be a failed state, squatting in between two oceans and belching out physical and cultural pollution that the rest of the world has to deal with. Failed states shouldn’t be allowed near nuclear power. They can’t manage the waste and they can’t be trusted not to pollute their neighbours. You guys have shown yourselves to be completely incapable of handling mining pollution or CO2 pollution, and have actively resisted even the smallest attempts to handle your CO2 pollution, even though it’s a very easy problem to fix. If you can’t fix those problems, why on earth would anyone think your regulatory systems – at any level of regulation you care to mention – would be able to handle the nuclear industry.

Just give it up – your nation can’t handle this stuff. You should be advocating for technology that is appropriate to a failed state, not the kind of technology that requires an advanced social democratic society with well-functioning regulatory systems and the ability build actual infrastructure.

66

Another Nick 04.13.19 at 10:11 am

Will 58

You were the one who arbitrarily nominated 400 GW as enough renewables capacity for Germany. Now you’re telling us that requires a whopping 11 TWh of storage – an entire week’s worth of Germany’s electricity consumption.

What’s wrong with 600 GW wind and solar + 4 TWh storage, which would be a 90% cheaper solution to the three problems listed above?

What’s wrong with 600 GW wind and solar + 2.5 TWh storage, which would save an additional $600 billion, and be a 70% cheaper system overall?

Why did you choose such a poor balance between generation and storage, which also happens to be the most expensive way to go about things?

67

ffrancis 04.13.19 at 10:16 am

So, are we expected to believe that we can develop and implement a safe, economic way to store nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years, but can’t develop and implement a safe, economic way to store electricity for a few hours? Isn’t science wonderful.

68

JimV 04.13.19 at 2:59 pm

Just a brief note of encouragement: so far,Will Boisvert has convinced me that nuclear has a case, which is not how I started this thread. He has read and understood his critics and replied to them civilly and constructively, or so it seems to me.

There are probably many workable combinations of conservation, renewables, and nuclear that could get us to carbon-neutrality. I remain skeptical that any sensible course of action will actually be followed, especially in the USA. (Which is not an excuse to give up; I don’t own a car and walk to everything I need within five miles.) (Meanwhile seeing at least a hundred cars go by, mostly with single occupants, within five minutes; and every small town I have lived in has an abandoned train station.)

69

Omega Centauri 04.13.19 at 3:11 pm

Will@62. But of course a 1-2% cost increase from 2017 to 2018 was a big deal, when the trendline is something close to a 10% decrease. So given current policies and incentives solar needs decreasing cost to drive growth. But barring draconian policies -which Trump would gladly deliver if we let him, solar growth should continue, as new solar becomes a better bargain over time.

Some figures from last year, 10,18,24,35. This are the percentage cost decreases last year for onshore wind, solar, offshore wind, and storage. Admittedly one years improvements are not a very reliable way to determine the future trajectory, but its clear that all these technologies are becoming dramatically cheaper year after year, if this can be sustained then RE power will be revolutionary-ly cheap before long.

70

Will Boisvert 04.13.19 at 6:11 pm

FN 65

1. “Will, have you spoken to any indigenous Americans about the pollution of their water supplies by uranium miners and the consequences for their health? I suggest you try that.”

FN, have you spoken to any indigenous Chinese people about the pollution of their water supplies by toxic effluent from PV factories and rare-earths mines producing raw materials for wind-turbine components, and the consequences for their health? I suggest you try that.

2. “I don’t know how to tell you this nicely, but you live in a failing state… Failed states shouldn’t be allowed near nuclear power…. You guys have shown yourselves to be completely incapable of handling mining pollution or CO2 pollution, and have actively resisted even the smallest attempts to handle your CO2 pollution, even though it’s a very easy problem to fix. If you can’t fix those problems, why on earth would anyone think your regulatory systems – at any level of regulation you care to mention – would be able to handle the nuclear industry. Just give it up – your nation can’t handle this stuff.”

If the US is a failed state when it comes to CO2 abatement, how did it manage to reduce its CO2 emissions during 2006-2016 faster than either Germany or Japan, where you live? In 2017, under Trump, the US again reduced CO2 emissions by 0.5 percent while Japan reduced them just 0.1 percent and German emissions increased by 0.1 percent. The US declines were from a much higher per capita emissions base, but still the US is decarbonizing faster than Germany and Japan.

A big reason for that is that Germany and Japan shut down nuclear reactors after the Fukushima accident, causing emissions to rise. That’s a sign of a failed state, a government that makes rash, counterproductive decisions out of fear. The US didn’t shut down its nuclear sector because it had a more rational and judicious response, a sign of a competent state.

Japan’s nuclear accident at Fukushima was much worse than America’s at TMI. By that measure the US is more competent at regulating nuclear power. But that’s a false measure of state failure. Japan’s nuclear sector was adequately regulated and is much safer than Japan’s FF sector, even counting the Fukushima accident, which was not serious from a public health standpoint. Japan’s state failure at Fukushima was in overreacting, imposing mass evacuations and shuttering the nuclear sector.

When it comes to decarbonization, every state is a failed state—none are going fast enough to avoid serious climate consequences.

And when it comes to nuclear safety, no state is a failed state. Nuclear power is running in Pakistan, Iran, Armenia, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, none of them paragons of state competence. And yet the industry over all is quite safe, much safer than FF power, about as safe as hydro and other RE. Nuclear is a safe technology, and even a sketchy state can handle it.

71

Will Boisvert 04.13.19 at 6:23 pm

Matt 64,

“From 1980 to 1990 nuclear generation went from 251.1 TWh to 576.9 TWh, an annualized growth rate of 32.6 TWh. I predict that solar output growth will surpass that rate in the 2020s.”

That’s not an apples to apples comparison of decarbonization performance until you normalize for population, electricity demand and GDP. Nuclear in the 1980s was growing that fast from a much smaller economy and workforce, and was proportionately displacing FF power and emissions at a much higher rate than solar would be in the 2020s at equal absolute growth rates. Solar in the 2020s would have to grow a lot faster in absolute terms than nuclear in the 1980s before it would rival nuclear’s benchmark.

72

nastywoman 04.13.19 at 8:33 pm

it’s really scary to read the comments of Will and Faust – especially ”Failed states shouldn’t be allowed near nuclear power” –
and
”why on earth would anyone think your regulatory systems – at any level of regulation you care to mention – would be able to handle the nuclear industry”.

Now isn’t that the question? –
and that’s why it probably would be best if I (ME) would start to ”regulate” America – and the first thing I would do – forbid this nuclear nonsense.

73

nastywoman 04.13.19 at 8:58 pm

but about this ”failed-state-thingy” –
are we sure? – as it seem to be such a… a ”cultural thing” when Americans come out with all these crazy ideas about… anything – and somewhere else I read that the whole English speaking world has gone mad – but I don’t think the Neu Seeländer -(and ”the Aussies”?) have -(gone mad)

Perhaps it’s just the fault of ”TEH Internet”?
It’s sooo tempting to post all of this silly nonsense -(like that ”nuclear” makes any sense) –
and so somebody who probably works for ”nuclear” -(like Homer) posts all this… this ”stuff” Homer would post on TEH Internet?

And is Will – – perhaps – –
Homer?

74

Matt 04.14.19 at 1:31 am

Nuclear in the 1980s was growing that fast from a much smaller economy and workforce, and was proportionately displacing FF power and emissions at a much higher rate than solar would be in the 2020s at equal absolute growth rates.

Total energy consumption was rising faster in the 1980s than now. Comparing 1980 and 1990, the US consumed 78.1 quads in 1980 and 84.5 quads in 1990 — absolute growth of 0.64 quads per year. Comparing 2010 from the table in that link to 2018 from Lawrence Livermore’s energy flow chart, energy consumption went from 98 quads to 101.2 quads over 8 years — absolute growth of 0.4 quads per year [1]. On the one hand, it doesn’t take as many TWh of low-carbon energy to decrease fossil emissions year-over-year when total energy demand is growing slower. In that sense it would be easier to make emissions decline each year starting now than in the 1980s. On the other hand, it will take a lot of fossil displacement just to reduce total US emissions back to where they were in 1980, since there are 100 million more Americans than in 1980.

[1] Though there was a big jump from 2017 to 2018.The start of a new trend? Can’t tell from one year. If the US returns to higher growth rates for absolute energy consumption, then low-carbon sources need to grow faster to make headway.

75

Matt 04.14.19 at 2:51 am

I think I made my last post a bit less clear by referring to primary energy alongside electricity. Let me try again: low-carbon electricity output needs to increase faster — absolutely, in TWh, not percentagewise — than total electricity production in order to actually diminish fossil electricity production. Referring again to the IAEA, Table 3, the US produced 2289.6 TWh of electricity in 1980 and 3037.8 TWh in 1990. In the same time period nuclear electricity production grew from 251.1 TWh to 576.9 TWh. Since total electricity production grew by ~83 TWh per year and nuclear electricity production grew by only ~33 TWh per year (hydro declined very slightly), the US generated more fossil electricity at the end of the 1980s than the beginning. Nuclear power would have had to increase by 84 or more TWh per year in the 1980s to actually make electrical generation from fossil fuels shrink.

From 2000 to 2017, total electricity production went from 3802.1 TWh to 4014.8 TWh. That’s only ~13 TWh per year. If that trend holds, renewables currently need to grow ~14 TWh per year to force an absolute decrease in fossil generated electricity.

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Will Boisvert 04.14.19 at 3:36 am

NW 73

“And is Will – – perhaps – –
Homer?”

D’oh!

77

Will Boisvert 04.14.19 at 3:38 am

OC 69

“But of course a 1-2% cost increase from 2017 to 2018 was a big deal, when the trendline is something close to a 10% decrease.”

Right, except that solar costs are already so low that a 10 percent decrease amounts to a small fraction of a penny in an LCOE that’s already below wholesale market rates. If that’s enough to make or break projects, it means they are on a knife-edge of profitability, or that costs are not exactly as they are indicated in PPAs. I’m not saying solar isn’t cheap, it is, but there may still be barriers of grid systemic costs and lack of value that are holding it back and may not be fixed easily.

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Will Boisvert 04.14.19 at 4:03 am

Another Nick 66

“You were the one who arbitrarily nominated 400 GW as enough renewables capacity for Germany. …What’s wrong with 600 GW wind and solar + 4 TWh storage, which would be a 90% cheaper solution to the three problems listed above?…What’s wrong with 600 GW wind and solar + 2.5 TWh storage, which would save an additional $600 billion, and be a 70% cheaper system overall? Why did you choose such a poor balance between generation and storage, which also happens to be the most expensive way to go about things?”

I nominated 400 GW wind and solar (half and half) because:
(1) it’s the minimum WS capacity that could supply all of Germany’s yearly electricity generation; and (2) It does indeed underscore how relying on batteries to fill WS gap leads to spiralling costs.

You’re now making the argument, as Omega Centauri did above, that simply oversizing the WS system is a much cheaper way to fill (some) of the shortfalls. That’s right! The more you oversize the grid and do away with batteries, the cheaper the system. That’s the point—batteries are an extremely costly and stupid way to try to add reliability to the grid. We should not deploy them massively, apart from small amounts for momentary firming and maybe to replace super-expensive gas peakers. Battery boosters, repent.

But overbuilding WS isn’t a complete solution either; it doesn’t erase the cost advantage nuclear would have in making a reliable carbon-free grid.

For one thing, “what’s wrong with 600 GW of wind and solar plus 2.5 twh of storage” is that it doesn’t do the job. During a winter week of 10,500 GWh demand, 1,295 gwh of hydro and bio and 600 GW of WS at 6 percent CF, there’s a deficit of about 3,100 gwh for storage to fill. Again, if the week starts with the batteries half full you’ll need another 1,550 gwh, total of 4,650 gwh.

Even if we assume super-cheap batteries at $100 per kwh, that adds $465 billion to the WS system, bringing it to over $1 trillion, and we haven’t yet added costs of extra transmission (probably $100 billion at least), replacing the batteries if they don’t last so long, etc. (And of course, it still wouldn’t be reliable.)

We could instead decarbonize the whole grid, reliably, with 90 gw of nuclear at Korean prices of $4000 per kwh, for a total cost of $360 billion, a third the cost of 600 gw WS plus 2.5 twh battery storage. Nuclear is cheaper.

How about 1,200 gw of WS? Even with that much, on Jan. 24 we would still need 613 gwh of battery storage to get by. But you know what? At that point the system would be almost reliable. We would still need gas backup occasionally, but very rarely, and I’m guessing we would be close to 95 percent carbon free. That’s really good. But:

(1) The cost with additional transmission and gas infrastructure is pushing $1.4 trillion, maybe more, 4 times more expensive than a nuclear system.

(2) Even the Germans might not want 1,200 gw of wind turbines and solar farms littered around. They would really dominate the landscape. Offshore wind to the rescue? Then double the cost.

Yes, you could use the excess power from 1,200 gw WS to decarbonize the rest of the German economy, but then it’s no longer overbuilt: the grid demand soars and the deficits soar and the amount of storage required soars and you’re back to square one. Eventually when the whole economy is on the grid, the logic of overbuild is that all the excess production from overbuilt capacity is, on net, wasted. The endpoint is you’ve got something like 2,000, 3,000 gw of wind and solar cluttering the landscape. Not a pretty picture.

No matter how you tweak the mix of overbuild and storage and transmission to minimize WS cost, there’s still an overwhelming case that nuclear is a better option if you want carbon-free. And historically we’ve done nuclear much cheaper than $4,000 per kw: about $2,500 per kw on average in France; $1,000 per kw for Oyster Creek.

So which approach to pursue: try to optimize the WS system for cost and performance, or optimize the nuclear system? The answer is, do both and see which works better in which contexts (Australian WS may beat nuclear). Unfortunately, JQ wants to strictly rule out the nuclear option (apart from preserving existing plants); he wants people to forget about innovations or regulatory reform to lower costs, and to just stop talking about nuclear. Pinker doesn’t rule out any option; he thinks we should pursue nuclear along with renewables. Pinker et al got some details wrong in the piece, but I think they got the basic ideas right.

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nastywoman 04.14.19 at 5:39 am

AND about forbidding ”nuclear” –

”The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits confectionery products which contain a “non-nutritive object”, unless the non-nutritive object has functional value.[40] Essentially, the Act bans “the sale of any candy that has embedded in it a toy or trinket”.[41]
In 1997, the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) examined and issued a recall for some Kinder Surprise illegally brought into the US with foreign labels.[42] The staff determined that the toys within the eggs had small parts. The staff presumed that Kinder Surprise, being a chocolate product, was intended for AMERICANS of all ages, including those under three years of age. On this basis, the staff took the position that Kinder Surprise was in violation of the small parts regulation and should be banned from importation into the US.[42]
Kinder Surprise eggs are legal in Canada and Mexico, but are illegal to import into the US. In January 2011, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) threatened a Manitoba resident with a $300 (Canadian dollars) fine for carrying one egg across the US border into Minnesota.[43] In June 2012, CBP held two Seattle men for two and a half hours after discovering six Kinder Surprise eggs in their car upon returning to the US from a trip to Vancouver. According to one of the men detained, a border guard quoted the potential fine as US $2,500 per egg.[44]
In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) re-issued their import alert stating “The embedded non-nutritive objects in these confectionery products may pose a public health risk as the consumer may unknowingly choke on the object”.[45]
Kinder Surprise bears warnings advising the consumer that the toy is “not suitable for children under three years, due to the presence of small parts”, and that “adult supervision is recommended”.[46]
Since 2017, Kinder Joy eggs (where a toy is not encased in chocolate shell) are sold in the United States, though Kinder Surprise eggs are still banned”.

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Faustusnotes 04.14.19 at 6:27 am

I note will that you don’t address the regulation issues I pointed out to you. I know that you secretly think regulation of any kind is not necessary, despite ample evidence to the contrary – and it’s the influence of people with views like yours that has put your country on its current trajectory to failed state. Until you can engage seriously with the issue of regulatory failure in your country, you don’t have a strong case for nuclear. This is the hint I was trying to give you with the reference to pollution of indigenous lands. Over here in japan I’m sanguine about nuclear power in my backyard- but I also live in a country where I can eat chicken and fresh lettuce with confidence it won’t kill me. You, it so much.

81

nastywoman 04.14.19 at 7:16 am

and please excuse the Überraschungseiquatsch – but it’s just an example for how easy it could be in ”TEH homeland” to forbid any type of ”nuclear” –
and Will – there are ”homes” on this planet where already everything ”runs” with RE-energy – and why in a world would somebody who just has to put a solar panel on his -(or her) roof – insists on using the utmost outdated, complicated and stupid source of energy instead?

Why?

BE-cause ”nuclear” is supposedly ”cheaper”?

Really?

Well – there are a lot of people who are doing a lot of (”Gesamtheitliche”) math lately and they have found out – that if you live in one of these ”lands” where energy is more expensive you – in exchange – might get your health insurance for half price?

Or 5 to 6 weeks of (payed) vacation per year?
Or you get your education for free and don’t have to pay USC 500 000 bucks?
And all of that BE-cause ”the people” in these ”lands” think ”long term” and ”sustainable” and ”Gesamtheitlich” – and they support systems where they get payed ”Living Wages” and thusly – are able to pay ”higher energy prices” –
Which – if you don’t think just ”short term” – soon will come down more and more –
and this WHOLE DEAL – doesn’t exclude any or some ”Yellow Wests” – as they make sure – that with their protest against high energy prices – they still will get paid ”Living Wages” and each year on first of August six or even seven weeks of vacation.

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John Quiggin 04.14.19 at 7:34 am

Will, there’s still at least one proposal (Fermi 3) left over from the US “nuclear renaissance” that has been awarded a construction and operating license, and could, in principle, be started

http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2015/05/01/dte-energy-to-receive-col-for-fermi-3/

(1) What policy changes do you think would be needed to get this plant built and (2) how long would it take, assuming the changes were implemented straight away.

My answers: 1. A substantial subsidy relative to renewables, even after including generous capacity payments. 2. At least 10 years.

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nastywoman 04.14.19 at 9:48 am

– and I really don’t know if this type of a isolated ”Fachdiskussion” focusing at costs, cost, cost is helpful in order to solve the problem of climate change – as everybody – and especially in TEH homeland probably knows by now – that it is the ”unintended consequences” of such costcostcosteconomics which make -(for example) certain US cities see ”less costly options” as ”a real pest”.

Like – who could have thunked it – that ”a supposedly less costly transportation system” (the name I will not name) – with all of their poor and exploited drivers – circling around day and night can do so much damage?

Which all should remind US – that there is absolutely no reason to make every (flat) inner US city as Bike-friendly and thus as eco-friendly as – for example – Amsterdam.
And if WE are able to forbid Surprise Eggs – and to limit the speed of driving to a dimension which has absolutely no relationship to the available power of the driving machine- WE also could do –
NOW –
what WE have to do in a few years anywhoo – FORBID all ”nuclear driving” in any downtown.

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Cian 04.14.19 at 2:58 pm

Will I did not know that existing nuclear power plants could be operated in a more flexible way. So thank you, I learnt something. I read the literature and it was quite fascinating, though much of it was theoretical. Ironically research in this area is driven by the problem that existing nuclear power plants are uneconomic, and so for them to be viable they need to maximize their flexibility.

As is your tendency however you’ve overstated the case (existing ones are still not flexible enough, but certainly in combination with other solutions it could be made to work). Existing technologies (ignoring the unicorn that is EPR) they’re as flexible as the better coal power stations best I can tell, which still is less than ideal.

EPR is irrelevant after the Finnish disaster. If the French and Finns can’t build one economically (and the signs are that the Chiness one is not a success), then nobody can. So that’s not a viable solution, which is a shame because it would have solved a lot of problems. And this kind of gets to the heart of my criticism which you continue to dodge – which is that nuclear simply isn’t economic. Nuclear power stations in the US, WHICH HAVE PAID OFF THEIR DEBT (so in a better position than new nukes), struggle to operate economically. One of the main problems with the SC nuclear power station (which I’m very familiar with because I’m still paying for the bloody thing) was the cost. It made zero economic sense, even with a huge subsidy from rate payers (yes I’m bitter) AND the US government. Also the bloody things take too long to build.

So you’re saying that instead we should burn gas when wind collapses.

Not at all, I’m simply stating that the one technology that has the flexibility that renewables need is natural gas. This is unfortunate as natural gas is bad for the environment, and we are running out of it (unless one believes the fantasies of the shale gas community). So our alternatives will have to be either storage solutions, larger grids and power reduction (the best and cheapest solution incidentally). All engineering solutions are imperfect – the challenge is to find the least imperfect solution for your set of constraints.

Of course the premise is false; nuclear can spin up in minutes.

This is simply not true, except for a technology which proved uneconomic. You don’t do you argument any favours with this stuff. And last I checked the French also sell a lot of their excess off peak energy abroad (various UK utilties used to buy a bunch of it).

But the deeper question is why we are expected to ramp down nuclear in the first place to accommodate wind; that does nothing to abate carbon.

That’s certainly the question you’d prefer people ask because you have an answer for it. My question is why build new nuclear power stations given they’re uneconomic, and the technologies we know how to build are fairly inflexible. Feel free to answer that question.

The real problem is that wind is a terrible partner for nuclear.

Buddy, I think you meant that nuclear is a terrible partner for wind. Fixed it for you.

So how about doing it the other way round? Just curtail wind when it overproduces and threatens to destabilize the grid, and let the nuclear plant run full steam 24/7/365. Then there won’t be any (specious) questions about ramping, and we won’t have to burn gas.

Sure we should produce energy that we don’t need. This makes total sense. Not sure why we’re ignoring other renewables here either. Maybe because wind supports your arguments better?

Germany is spending tens of billions of euros building high-voltage lines from the windy north to the industrial south. Its population and electricity use are stagnant; it is expanding the grid solely and explicitly to accommodate surges in wind power. All that expense would be unnecessary if there were no wind power, so it should be charged to the system costs of the wind turbines. That’s what I’m getting at.

1) I agree Germany should not have shut down their existing nukes. That was stupid.
2) Germany was going to have to update it’s transmision/generating capacity anyway, and wind (even with transmission lines) made economic sense along with solar and other solutions.
3) I totally agree that we should do accounting based upon the total cost of a system, rather than individual inputs, but that would also apply to nuclear (insurance subsidies, cost of waste treatment, etc).

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Cian 04.14.19 at 3:05 pm

Responding to random Will bullshit:

Outside Germany, the yellow vest riots, touched off by a carbon tax increase, show that there is a limit to how much money people will pay for RE.

The yellow vest riots were about reducing taxes on the wealthy while increasing them on the poor. The trigger point was the carbon tax (applied regressively), but it could easily have been something else.

And should Germany build batteries? No; from an economic standpoint it should build nuclear instead.

No, it should use one of the other storage solutions that makes more economic sense. Your obsessive focus on the least economic solution seems a bit suspect. Yes if you compare a bad solution to nuclear, nuclear looks good (particularly if you ignore how nuclear builds always go wildly over budget).

It’s fairly clear Will that you’ve decided the solution is nuclear, and you will twist any data that comes you way to make new nuclear builds look good and ignore data that makes nuclear look bad. You constantly present renewables in the worst possible way, and constantly ignore data that makes nuclear look bad. If nuclear is as good as you say, there should be a way to make the argument which doesn’t ignore all the problems. Otherwise you’re kind of digging the grave for nuclear.

86

Cian 04.14.19 at 3:17 pm

Will:
France didn’t have a nuclear industry until the 1970s, but they managed to train one up right quick. Same with the US. There was no significant nuclear construction industry in the US before the mid-1960s, yet Oyster Creek, one of the first plants, was finished in 1969 at a cost of $1000 per kw, very cheap.

Yes, but the France of the 1970s was an exceptionally well run state, with strong skills in civil engineering and construction, with high levels of managerial competence. The US today has low levels of construction skill and low levels of managerial competence. These things were demonstrated in the failed South Carolina build.

The problem is not competence but simply that nowadays nuclear is over-regulated, from the gold-plated designs down to the basics of concreting and welding, which under NQA strictures are maniacally over-burdened with regulation and paperwork.

I know quite a few people who worked on the SC plant. This is not true. The problem was that the design required construction skills that they couldn’t manage. The same was true in Finland.

The latter leads to delays and slow work and rework of tiny details and cost overruns.

Again not true. These were caused by managerial and engineering failures, budget wrangling and short-cuts taken to try and prevent delays. Classic managerial failures in other words (and fairly true of any US civil engineering project today). Nothing about the project was particularly surprising to anyone who pays attentions to US civil engineering failures.

2. “Nuclear is the ultimate “this time it will be different” technology.”

No, the argument is more like, “this time, it will be the same.” Same as the cheap, rapid buildout of early US nuclear, same as the cheap, rapid buildout of French nuclear, same as the cheap, rapid buildout of Korean nuclear, same as the cheap, rapid buildout of Chinese nuclear.

The reason nobody wants to build these is because (a) they don’t meet modern environmental standards (which have been raised for everything – unless you think we should go back to lax environmental standards of the 1950s) and (b) they don’t make money. The new nukes were supposed to be more efficient and economic.

The Koreans are a lot better at civil engineering than the US (look at their transit projects for example). China – well who the hell knows with China.

If the technology is freed from the strangling overregulation and actively hostile government policy it suffers nowadays, it will post the same good performance as the historical norm. You’re cherry-picking the failures without looking at the history of successful performance.

Ah, the song of every failed technology ever. It’s the government’s fault. It’s also the government’s fault that nuclear power plants get insurance subsidies, and subsidies on waste disposal. And that operators have been able to disguise the costs of decomissioning in their accounts.

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Cian 04.14.19 at 3:25 pm

OK, Cian, but tell that to the numberless greens, many on this blog, who insist that batteries are the solution, and to all the utilities that are investing in them and all the governments that are mandating them.

This simply isn’t true. They are one technology that is being used, and one technology that has been receiving a lot of research money. The rest is just not true.

All the storage forms you ticked off have drawbacks of cost, scalability, efficiency or sustainability—CAES burns natural gas!—and most haven’t gotten beyond a few demonstrations projects or drawing-board concepts.

yes every engineering solution has problems. This is literally engineering school 101. None of these solutions are perfect, or always the right solution. This is also true. None of this should really surprise anyone… Some of these solutions are already proving very successful, others are currently research projects, or being prototyped. Some solutions only work in certain geographies, etc, etc. There will need to be a storage mix, just as there will need to be a generation mix.

Also, one form of CAES burns natural gas. Others don’t. I have no idea whether the amount of gas burnt is significant, or not – and I kind of suspect you don’t either.

CAES, flywheels, hydrogen have all been around for decades or centuries; if they worked well they probably would have caught on by now, the way batteries have. There’s a market for storage.

Stares bleakly at the books on the history of science and technology on his shelves and whistles tunelessly…

That’s not really how technological/engineering progress works…

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Cian 04.14.19 at 3:30 pm

Storage isn’t a net energy source, it just shifts the time energy is released into the grid. After subtracting storage losses, it’s a net energy sink. And it’s not clean if it’s storing coal-fired electricity. Most of the large utility-scale batteries you read about are not “firming” solar and wind; they are storing grid power, which has some RE but also includes nuclear, coal, gas, whatever is on the grid when the battery is charging.

Okay, dude, this is what I mean about a dishonest argument style. Obviously storage is being built to deal with renewables and mismatches between load and demand. Just as previous storage technologies were built to deal with mismatches between nuclear generation and utility demand. What the hell has coal to do with this other than the adolescent point that “hey man, it’s all energy at the end of the day. The grid don’t care man, you know what I mean.”

And yes I agree that storage should be included as parts of the cost of renewables. That would be a valid, honest point. Maybe focus on those instead?

89

Cian 04.14.19 at 3:41 pm

Will: If the US is a failed state when it comes to CO2 abatement, how did it manage to reduce its CO2 emissions during 2006-2016 faster than either Germany or Japan, where you live? In 2017, under Trump, the US again reduced CO2 emissions by 0.5 percent while Japan reduced them just 0.1 percent and German emissions increased by 0.1 percent. The US declines were from a much higher per capita emissions base, but still the US is decarbonizing faster than Germany and Japan.

Because Japan and Germany made the very stupid decisions to retire their entire nuclear power generation plants. Don’t disagree. In the case of Japan that’s more understandable (there was a bad accident, and one that demonstrated the nuke operators had been lying on a number of issues, which clearly freaked out the Japanese government). Germany less so.

In addition the US experienced a very bad recession in 2007 that among other thiings greatly reduced power demand. Picking 2006 is kind of cherry picking TBH. There are other factors too. Germany has a lot of heavy industry, while the US is rapidly deindustrializing. Also there was a move to replace coal with gas (for economic reasons), which also helped reduce CO2 emissions. Of course it now turns out that carbon emissions for the US have probably been understated due to fracking actually being worse for CO2 than previously assumed.

That’s a sign of a failed state, a government that makes rash, counterproductive decisions out of fear. The US didn’t shut down its nuclear sector because it had a more rational and judicious response, a sign of a competent state.

This seems… hyperbolic.

And the US response is largely due to state and regulator capture by private companies than anything else. The idea that the US government seriously would have considered costing big business a lot of money for environmental reasons doesn’t really pass the laugh test.

Japan’s nuclear accident at Fukushima was much worse than America’s at TMI. By that measure the US is more competent at regulating nuclear power.

Or lucky not to get tsunamis. Who can say…

90

Edward Gregson 04.14.19 at 4:09 pm

The IPCC seems to think that some form of carbon capture will be required to meet climate targets. Direct air capture could be useful for making low-carbon fuels for aviation, or compensating for the emissions from the steel industry. It’s quite power intensive, but as far as I know it doesn’t have to run at any specific time of day or consistently day-to-day, and could soak up extra power when other draws on the grid are low.

To what extent would this change future grid design, for renewables or nuclear?

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Matt 04.14.19 at 7:14 pm

Also, one form of CAES burns natural gas. Others don’t. I have no idea whether the amount of gas burnt is significant, or not – and I kind of suspect you don’t either.

The kind that burns natural gas has depressingly high gas consumption. The machinery supplier for the only American CAES project using gas claims that “CAES has environmental advantages compared to conventional gas turbines because its combustors use as little as two-thirds the fuel.” Adding that complexity to reduce natural gas consumption by only a third is unattractive. Of course, this American plant was built in 1991. Perhaps someone can build a better plant now. But a better one hasn’t been built yet.

A much smaller (2 megawatt) gas-free CAES project was built in Texas in 2011. The company behind it, General Compression, Inc., doesn’t appear to have published reports about its performance. That company merged with another CAES startup to form GCX Energy in 2015 and there has been a lack of information since. I presume that the merged company quietly failed.

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nastywoman 04.14.19 at 8:06 pm

@
”I agree Germany should not have shut down their existing nukes. That was stupid”.

I don’t agree – as shutting down their existing nukes made Germany becoming ”the country where all of these non-stupid people will live – who won’t need any ”grid” anymore as they will be able to produce all of the RE-energy their household need – just by themselves.

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nastywoman 04.14.19 at 8:48 pm

– and perhaps we –
(also Will and Cian?) – could start looking at ”the full story of a country’s contribution to global warming” –
as looking at a country’s total carbon emissions completely overlooks that – for example – US carbon emissions is about seven times Germany’s – while the US population is only four times Germany’s.

In other words:
Each American is emitting a lot more carbon than the average German.

T be more precise – under the measurement of carbon emissions per capita (person) – the average American is responsible for 19.8 tonnes per person, and the average German citizen clocks in at around 10 tonnes.

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Kaleberg 04.14.19 at 11:56 pm

I did consulting work for a number of power companies in the late 80s and early 90s. The folks I dealt with were off nuclear. Having some nuclear plants to dispatch was great, but it was hard to justify building a new one. If nothing else, oil prices had collapsed, and it was harder to amortize the cost of a nuclear plant over its lifespan. Worse, they all had swimming pools full of spent nuclear rods and no idea of what to do with them. Fossil fuel prices have gone up and down since, but even if the engineering and load planners were optimistic about nuclear, it was hard to convince the finance guys with failures like Washington State Power and Shoreham. I assume the fuel rods are still in their swimming pools awaiting action by an evil regulator.

One place I find fascinating is Australia. When I visited South Australia it was hard to miss all the cisterns. Every suburban and country house seemed to have one as its own gray water supply. Apparently, you need to design in a cistern for gray water to get a building permit. Now they’re subsidizing solar power and battery packs. There is still a central water system and a power grid, but storage and collection/generation are distributed across the nodes. The latest, from West Australia, is direct solar to ammonia synthesis using atmospheric nitrogen and sea water for the hydrogen. They envision a solar power export business exploiting existing ammonia transportation technology.

Another thing to consider is that even heavy industrial power users are using less power than they used to. Apparently steel making requires much less energy than in the good old days. They even use recycled plastic for the carbon charge and pour directly to metal processing without cooling to ingots. The US still produces a lot of steel, but it doesn’t dominate energy use the way it once did.

95

Another Nick 04.15.19 at 12:38 am

Will: For one thing, “what’s wrong with 600 GW of wind and solar plus 2.5 twh of storage” is that it doesn’t do the job.

I was slightly out on that, but not by much.

Try 611 GW of wind and solar plus 2.5 TWh of storage instead.

With the same amount of gas Germany has installed now, fired up on just 10 days since the beginning of 2016, that does the job fine.

>99% carbon emissions eliminated from the electricity sector. No more nuclear waste.

For 70-90% cheaper than you claimed, and have already conceded is affordable.

96

Omega Centauri 04.15.19 at 1:50 am

Edward @90.
Yes I think we will at some point start doing carbon removal from the atmosphere. But, none of the mechanisms are particularly effective and have their own environmental effects. My favorite
is enhanced weathering, which breaks up the right kind of silicate rocks, which over time will combine with atmospheric CO2 to form carbonates and Silicon Dioxide (sand). It doesn’t require much energy, but its a lot of broken near surface rock, and who knows what sort of nasty stuff may leach out? The oil companies are touting “Carbon Engineering”, which is an industrial process they developed. It can do free air capture, but requires half as much natural gas as the amount of CO2 it absorbs. So its really just greenwashing at this point.

I suspect we will eventually do some free air capture and sequestration, but probably will only be drawing down the CO2 at a percent or two of the rate we and currently emitting it. That might be enough to achieve longterm carbon neutrality whilst allowing a few specialty uses of fossil fuels to continue. Scale is the big killer here, we are emitting cubic miles of (if it were liquified) CO2 per year, and thats a huge volume of material.

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nastywoman 04.15.19 at 5:22 am

AND only AFTER the average American has succeeded to come down from his 19.8 tonnes of carbon emissions per person, to about the 10 tonnes the average German citizen emits should WE stop wondering why an American -(or Australian?) has the nerve to call Germany ”stupid” in getting of ”stupid nuclear”?

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nastywoman 04.15.19 at 6:00 am

Or – WAIT!

”Germany to fall short of climate goals”
and
”Germany: From leader to loser on climate protection”

that’s what a lot of US were reporting – after it became ”known” that Germany will miss the target of reducing emission by 40 – in words FORTY percent by 2020.

So – they come up with the utmost ”leading” program in climate protection and because the will miss their utmost impossible high mark – WE write:

”From leader to loser on climate protection”

How stupid is that?

99

Area Man 04.15.19 at 7:03 am

The problem is not competence but simply that nowadays nuclear is over-regulated, from the gold-plated designs down to the basics of concreting and welding, which under NQA strictures are maniacally over-burdened with regulation and paperwork.

You must realize that this stuff begins to sound like a bunch of lame excuse-making after awhile. Why did they start building those plants if they knew in advance that they would get ground down by all the regulations and stuff? And if they didn’t know, why didn’t they? They went right ahead with a multi-billion dollar project that they couldn’t finish on-time or on-budget or even at all.

You really need to internalize the fact that the American nuclear industry has had its chance and it clearly failed. Pretending that there’s a unicorn that will fix it all isn’t going to help. It really doesn’t even matter what the source of the problems are, you can’t just wish them away.

100

Area Man 04.15.19 at 7:27 am

Storage isn’t a net energy source, it just shifts the time energy is released into the grid. After subtracting storage losses, it’s a net energy sink.

I…think we all know that. The problem is that you’re trying to have it both ways. You want to deride storage as not an actual energy source, but then you deride renewables as being unable to add more capacity when they’re maxed out at peak generating times and have to curtail. Each is true in isolation, but together they offset each other. If you have significant curtailment, then storage is free minus the capital costs. And if you have excess storage capacity, there is no economic loss to adding additional cheap renewables. I mean, maybe there’s an argument that the two in tandem can never be cost-effective, but I’m not seeing it. Especially given that storage costs will keep going down and that there are so many different battery chemistries available that the problem for most of them is too much competition.

And it’s not clean if it’s storing coal-fired electricity.

Uh, we’re talking about storing renewables. The whole point of all of this is to get coal off the grid.

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Dipper 04.15.19 at 1:22 pm

.. but when we are all driving electric vehicles, won’t we recharge our cars overnight and hence store the energy in fuel cells for release during the day? We could even have a rate that only switches on when wind power goes above a critical level? Isn’t that the point of electric vehicles as green vehicles? And if every vehicle in the world does that, isn’t that a significant amount of storage of renewable electricity?

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steven t johnson 04.15.19 at 2:43 pm

Will Boisvert seems to do a lot of handwaving. But in all fairness I have to agree the total costs of storage technologies, such as aquifer drainage, mining pollution, transport costs for materials, industrial waste for processing, aren’t getting considered either. This is partly because the scaling-up of storage technologies is getting a little of its own handwaving I think.

But my biggest impression of this thread is how similar it is to the Freakonomics nonsense about geoengineering (which by the way may be essential if it’s already too late,) without ever bothering to ask, who’s going to pay for this? Who is going to pay for a vast power grid across multiple climate zone, aka national borders? The people who own the power grid will have a tremendous asset, which raises the question of why would their customers/victims sign on?

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Taj 04.15.19 at 4:40 pm

I’d just like to thank Will Boisvert for a really helpful series of posts here.

Like others on the thread, I suspect that the west is currently institutionally incapable of the kind of grand-scale civil engineering he’s arguing for, and that it’d take more than global disorder, famine & species loss to change that. But these excellent (and amazingly good-humoured) posts have done a lot to clean up my thinking on the alternatives.

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Will Boisvert 04.15.19 at 10:44 pm

Another Nick 95,

“Will: For one thing, “what’s wrong with 600 GW of wind and solar plus 2.5 twh of storage” is that it doesn’t do the job.
I was slightly out on that, but not by much.
Try 611 GW of wind and solar plus 2.5 TWh of storage instead.
With the same amount of gas Germany has installed now, fired up on just 10 days since the beginning of 2016, that does the job fine.
>99% carbon emissions eliminated from the electricity sector.”

OK, so you are burning gas after all. That’s OK, I don’t have much problem with a little residual gas on the grid. And right, it does lessen the cost of a reliable WS-dominated system. Again, that’s kind of the point. Trying to decarbonize with storage doesn’t work—the more you can avoid it, even to the point of burning some gas, the better.

But your cost is still comparatively high. Even with batteries at $100 per kwh installed sometime in the future, which is optimistic, your system is costing about $860 billion. Add in the cost of the gas plants and pipelines and grid expansion, which should be charged to WS, we’re talking $1 trillion or more, about three times the cost of a nuclear system, for shorter-lived assets.

Yes, Germany can afford that, if they don’t go yellow vest. My guess is that land-use issues will chafe more than cost. Germany is starting to get some local NIMBY pushback on WS installations at 100 GW. I would be surprised if they actually get to 400 GW, let alone 611. And then double that, at least, to encompass the rest of its primary energy supply. I’m a pretty-landscape environmentalist, and one reason I like nuclear is that its environmental and land footprints are dramatically smaller than RE’s.

“No more nuclear waste.”

I don’t have a problem with nuclear waste either. Civilian nuclear waster is very safe and cheap to store, and has been for the 50 years we’ve been storing it. The idea that it is a serious problem is the most groundless of all anti-nuclear myths. I expect the waste from trashed RE to be more of a practical problem, though still a small one.

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Will Boisvert 04.15.19 at 11:35 pm

JQ 82

“(1) What policy changes do you think would be needed to get this plant built and (2) how long would it take, assuming the changes were implemented straight away.”

That plant’s not going to get built because it’s too expensive, $10 billion for an untried ESBR design by GE. The point is to get away from gold-plated Gen III+ behemoths and build old, mature, el cheapo Gen II.

Here are policy changes to get *a* plant built at Fermi or wherever:

(1) Rescind NRC’s aircraft impact rule.

(2) Buy a CPR1000 reactor from the Chinese. It’s a good Gen II+ design, the upgraded granddaughter of a Westinghouse design that’s very common in the US. It has an excellent construction and operating history, with 20-odd on line in China, all built fast and on budget for $3,000-$3500 per kw. The last one came on line in 2017, so there are plenty of experienced project managers around. The supply chain largely overlaps with the Hualong 1, so it’s still intact.

The CPR1000 isn’t licensed in the US—and that’s the policy problem. There’s no question that it’s a safer design than any currently-operating reactor in the US, but it might not pass muster at NRC today without very expensive upgrades, and in any case would take many years to get licensed. No rational reason to go through that rigmarole because we know the plant is safe and it has already been vetted by IAEA, an expert accrediting agency. Just rubber-stamp the design and start in on building it tomorrow.

(3) Extend and make permanent all the subsidies, preferments and mandates for renewables—and give them to nuclear too.

–“ My answers: 1. A substantial subsidy relative to renewables, even after including generous capacity payments. 2. At least 10 years.”

I think with those reforms we could realistically bring in nuclear at $4,000 per kw in the US, maybe less. I don’t think it needs more subsidy than renewables to get built—but it might be worth them. It’s a better quality of power, so it could merit a PPA premium commensurate with lower overall system costs. With nuclear a utility planner would be looking at an initial 20-year LCOE of $60-70 per mwh until the mortgage is paid, higher than WS in many places, but then a further 40-60 years of operation at $20-30 per mwh. Maybe he’s also thinking about the endpoint of engineering a carbon-free grid, with no more gas competing in capacity markets, when nuclear avoids the cost of grid expansion, storage and overbuild. The present-day relative market pricing of WS vs. nuclear PPAs might not capture all those cost considerations that planners think about long term, which is why they might build the nuke instead of the immediately “cheaper” WS.

As for a timetable, from a standing start it would take maybe 7 years to bring a plant on line. But once series production kicks in they will come on line faster by routinizing planning and building multiple reactors per site at 4-5 years build times.

Even if it takes 10 years before power flows, that’s not a deal-breaker. Contra AOC, we are not going to finish decarbonizing the world in 2030; in fact we will have barely begun. If it takes 10 years to kick the nuclear industry into high gear, it’s worth the effort; there will still be a vast ocean of FF to displace.

We need a new regulatory mindset of fast, cheap and safe as opposed to the current mindset of slow, hideously expensive and only slightly safer. I think it unlikely NRC and Westerm goverments will undertake that paradigm shift because of politics, but in practical terms it is feasible.

One ray of light is NuScale, a 700 MW multiple-SMR design. The designers say they can bring it in at $4,200 per MW in America, but it’s untried so we have to be skeptical of that. They do, however, have a Utah utility lined up as a buyer, willing to gamble on it. Their license application at NRC is doing well. It’s an incredibly safe design: the reactors are small, so they can be cooled forever first by water pools and then air with no power or human supervision; it’s underground, so no aircraft vulnerability, etc. Crucially, NRC seems willing to acknowledge the plant’s intrinsic safety and loosen regulatory binds. For example, they are discussing limiting its emergency planning zone to the plant boundary instead of the usual 10-mile radius, thus conceding that a major radioactive release that threatens the public just won’t happen. (That doesn’t mean Gen II is meaningfully less safe; we’re talking tiny disparities in infinitesimal risk here. The important thing is that NRC is moving toward the recognition that nuclear safety can justify relaxed regulation.)

NuScale is small so it has high per-kwh operating costs, but that could be remedied by building several units on a site once the constructability is proven. If it can win a regulatory regime that regards it as intrinsically safe, rather than as an intrinsic threat that has to be over-armored against disaster, then maybe it will be freed to vigorously pursue engineering and operational tweaks and staffing reductions that would seriously cut costs—the normal trajectory of innovation and economizing.

Lots of things worth trying, so don’t write nuclear off.

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nastywoman 04.16.19 at 1:53 pm

@
”Lots of things worth trying”,

Yes – I will try to satisfy all of my energy needs with ”hydroelectric power” – and it looks ”good”!

So about:
”So don’t write nuclear off”.

I think it was completely written of 1986?
-(and my homeland – the US is always a bit slow to get ”Whassup”)

107

Cian 04.16.19 at 7:17 pm

It has an excellent construction and operating history, with 20-odd on line in China, all built fast and on budget for $3,000-$3500 per kw. The last one came on line in 2017, so there are plenty of experienced project managers around. The supply chain largely overlaps with the Hualong 1, so it’s still intact.

$3,000 per kw is not cheap. That’s even assuming there are no hidden costs for insurance, decommissioning, waste disposal and the things could be built in the US on budget/time.

108

Cian 04.16.19 at 7:34 pm

I read Will’s post as tacitly admitting that nuclear is not competitive on price. Attempts to get the private sector to build them have failed in both the UK and the US, even with generous subsidies (yes I’m still bitter about the damn SC generator that I was forced to subsidize). And legacy reactors are not competitive either, despite having paid off their debt. That’s even before we talk about the legacy of recent failed (or not very successful) projects in the US, UK and Finland.

And yes I wouldn’t disagree that there needs to be a serious discussion about the limitations of storage technologies, and what is feasible. There is a lot of hot-air on all sides of the debate, and a pretense that we can somehow maintain our current lifestyles (SUVs on the highways, uninsulated mcmansions in the exurbs, regular jet flights). But the nuclear lobby are just as guilty of this as anyone.

And of course the real problem is not supply, it’s demand. Fixing transport (trains, buses, trams), fixing houses (insulation would be huge in the US. It’s crazy how poor building standards are here), changing farming practices and doing something about flying.

109

Cian 04.16.19 at 7:37 pm

Also in response to nastywoman. Yes Germany’s emissions are half those of the US. That actually makes the US look better than it should though, as Germany is an exporter and has a number of carbon intensive industries (e.g. steel). The US imports much of it’s carbon-intensive goods, so it would probably be reasonable to include a fair chunk of China’s emissions as those of the US. Fortunately the Chinese are at least taking global warming seriously.

The biggest contribution to global warming that we could make would simply to remove the US from the map.

110

Ogden Wernstrom 04.16.19 at 9:05 pm

… Germany and Japan shut down nuclear reactors after the Fukushima accident, causing emissions to rise. That’s a sign of a failed state, a government that makes rash, counterproductive decisions out of fear.

The USofA accelerated that sort of failure activity as a result of the 2016 elections.

The USofA has long been good – maybe the best of any first-world* country – at allowing business to shed externalities.

France appears to learn from mistakes. From National University of Singapore, back in 2011:

Although the nuclear industry say it has learned from its mistakes and that new technology and oversight have made plants much safer, 57 accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, two thirds taking place in the US. The French Atomic Energy Agency (CEA) has concluded that technical innovation cannot eliminate the risk of human errors in nuclear plant operation….

*This classification may already have reached its use-by date.

111

Matt 04.16.19 at 11:22 pm

The OECD tracks statistics on Carbon dioxide emissions embodied in international trade. If you click through to the dashboard, you can see that for the most recent year with data available (2015) China produced 9280.9 million tonnes of CO2, but only 7977.9 million tonnes of that was embodied in domestic final demand. The other 14% went to exports.

I’m skeptical of framings that put the focus on consumers instead of producers, though. “It’s not Georgia Power’s fault that they emit so much carbon dioxide — they’re just supplying the inexpensive energy desired by the millions of people who buy from them.” I don’t buy it. And I don’t buy it any more when we’re talking about Chinese businesses than when we’re talking about American businesses.

112

Faustusnotes 04.17.19 at 12:34 am

Will, if it costs $3000/kwh to build in China or Korea it’s going to cost waaaaay more than that in the USA. Just look at fast rail as an example of how much more easily Asia gets shit built than the USA. Infrastructure is much cheaper over here. What kind of inflation do you think you should apply for western incompetence, infrastructure bottlenecks and laziness?

We get to the bitter end of this thread and your shilling now reveals its clear purpose: you want even more subsidies for nuclear. Why are they necessary if it’s so much cheaper?

113

Omega Centauri 04.17.19 at 3:43 am

“The CPR1000 isn’t licensed in the US—and that’s the policy problem. There’s no question that it’s a safer design than any currently-operating reactor in the US, but it might not pass muster at NRC today without very expensive upgrades, and in any case would take many years to get licensed. No rational reason to go through that rigmarole because we know the plant is safe and it has already been vetted by IAEA, an expert accrediting agency. Just rubber-stamp the design and start in on building it tomorrow.”

Now, I actually agree with that. And Will is right that we will at best be in the middle of the transition in 2030 (and probably not even there unless we really get a move on). And 3000/KW isn’t bad. Utility solar is about $1000 per KWhour today, which with a capacity factor of roughly 20% is more expensive than Will’s hoped for cost. Of course I expect solar to be $.60 or less by then, but there still is the intermitancy thing.

But, I also think its vanishing improbably that we will pursue that course of action. One reason in NIH (Not Invented Here). And our validation procedures are exceedingly onerous. I was once tangentially involved in selling an obsolete computer to a national lab. They claimed “we can no longer compile it and must use an old binary”. But I think the real reason was the code was validated many years ago, and any trivial change -even a simple recompile would trigger the need for revalidation, which costs millions of dollars and years to accomplish. Cheaper to emulate past computers than to ever switch to something new. [Not so different from why Boeing choose to do the 737MAX, rather than follow the engineers recommendations and design a new airplane, too many flaming regulatory hoops you are forced to jump through. So once Fukushima happened I stopped touting Nuclear and admitted we will have to decarboniize with Nuclear -because it just ain’t gonna happen.

114

nastywoman 04.17.19 at 6:02 am

@109
”Yes Germany’s emissions are half those of the US. That actually makes the US look better than it should though, as Germany is an exporter and has a number of carbon intensive industries (e.g. steel). The US imports much of it’s carbon-intensive goods, so it would probably be reasonable to include a fair chunk of China’s emissions as those of the US”.

and @111
”I’m skeptical of framings that put the focus on consumers instead of producers, though. “It’s not Georgia Power’s fault that they emit so much carbon dioxide — they’re just supplying the inexpensive energy desired by the millions of people who buy from them.”

So what makes whom and ”how”? – ”look better”?

115

nastywoman 04.17.19 at 6:11 am

and about:
”The biggest contribution to global warming that we could make would simply to remove the US from the map”.

– as WE can’t do that – a good start could be – if the US – or our fellow US citizens would start to take a bit of advice from European friends – who produce half of their emissions and who already –
or actually a long time ago –
have written ”nuclear” completely OFF?

116

Will Boisvert 04.17.19 at 9:02 am

FN 112

“Will, if it costs $3000/kwh to build in China or Korea it’s going to cost waaaaay more than that in the USA. Just look at fast rail as an example of how much more easily Asia gets shit built than the USA. Infrastructure is much cheaper over here. What kind of inflation do you think you should apply for western incompetence, infrastructure bottlenecks and laziness?”

Korea is a pretty high-wage country, and it’s building its APR1400 for about $4,000 per kw all-in. It looks like the APR1400 will actually win its NRC license, so it’s an even better possibility for a US build. I think $4,000 isn’t outlandish for an American CPR1000, with parts sourced from China.

“We get to the bitter end of this thread and your shilling now reveals its clear purpose: you want even more subsidies for nuclear. Why are they necessary if it’s so much cheaper?”

Mainly competition from cheap gas, but also from subsidized renewables. In my state of New York, for example, WS can get state subsidies of around $20-23 per mwh on 20-year contracts; adding in federal subsidies, that will total about $40-45 per mwh, which is a lot. Note that I also called for extending and making permanent current subsidies and preferments for RE as well, some of which are sunsetting. So I just want parity in the treatment of all clean energy sources, not an advantage for nuclear (except against FF).

117

Will Boisvert 04.17.19 at 9:04 am

OC 113

NIH and legacy designs:

I think utilities would build foreign designs. American utilities were considering French EPRs before the costs ballooned, and Japanese ABWRs.

CPR1000 is essentially the legacy model in your analogy. It’s pretty similar to many Westinghouse PWRs that are operating in the US, from which it is descended; a very familiar and comfortable technology to American engineers and utilities.

I agree that it would be hard to get NRC to rubberstamp a CPR1000, but that’s clearly a dysfunctional regulatory mindset, not a problem with the technology.

118

David J. Littleboy 04.17.19 at 11:55 am

“Just look at fast rail as an example of how much more easily Asia gets shit built than the USA”

Minor point of order. Fast rail in Asia is along corridors with massive demand (due to high population densities) and is a profit-making operation*. The US just doesn’t have the closely spaced, economically intertwined population centers that Asia does.

FWIW, Japan is expecting enough business on their Tokyo to Nagoya maglev (starts service in 2027, then extended to Osaka 7 years after that) line that predicted prices are competitive with air and Shinkansen. (And it’s being done with all private money. I think that maglev’s insane, but Japan’s doing it. Should be fine, as long as Fuji doesn’t erupt.)

Oh, yes. My favorite statistic of the year. Tunnel drilling machines. Tokyo is the graveyard of at least 1000 tunnel drilling machines. There’s no way to get them out, so they just run the tunnel out a bit and leave them there.

*: Local rail, on the other hand is a disaster, since (at least in Japan) the rural areas are depopulating and have been below economic sustainability for decades now.

119

Will Boisvert 04.17.19 at 11:49 pm

NW 115,

“a good start could be – if the US – or our fellow US citizens would start to take a bit of advice from European friends – who produce half of their emissions and who already –
or actually a long time ago –
have written ”nuclear” completely OFF?”

Europe hasn’t “written ‘nuclear’ completely off.” It has a lot of nuclear power. In 2017 Europe produced 850 terrawatt-hours of nuclear energy, a smidge more than the 847 terrawatt-hours in the US (gross). There are currently 8 reactors under construction in Europe, in England, France, Finland, Belarus and Slovakia, compared to 2 in the US.

It’s true that European nuclear is shrinking in the face of some hostile politics. Aging reactors aren’t being replaced, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium are all phasing out nuclear power and France is planning to shrink its sector by one third. Those developments will markedly slow Europe’s decarbonization, so not something to celebrate.

120

faustusnotes 04.18.19 at 1:29 am

Predictable defensiveness to my reasonable point that western countries don’t know how to do infrastructure. Will says that Korea is a “pretty high wage country” and is building its reactors at 4k/kwh. Actually the average salary in Korea is 2/3 that of the USA, so if Will really believes this is an important driver of infrastructure costs he should be advertising those reactors at 6k at least for the USA. Now of course Will is going to claim salaries are not important (so why raise it?) and try to avoid confronting the fact that the US can’t build stuff for other reasons: laziness, incompetence, corruption and poor existing infrastructure.

David J Littleboy raises the usual excuse that fast rail in Asia is possible because of high population density. This is incorrect for multiple reasons. It’s true that the Tokaido shinkansen (linking Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima) runs through areas of high population density but it was built 40 years ago when these areas had much lower populations and (more importantly) Japan was much poorer. It was an infrastructure investment, not a response to inadequate infrastructure. This is a difference in thinking.

But this high density thing is wrong anyway. In the past 10 years Japan has built a shinkansen on the west coast of Kyushu that links Fukuoka (1.5 million) to Kagoshima (600k) via Kumamoto (740k). Not exactly a boom market! In the last 10 years Japan has also extended the Joetsu and Hokuriku shinkansen, and I think the Tohoku too, through similarly low population areas. Local rail is also not a disaster. For example the Sonic (which I used to ride) links Fukuoka (1.5 million) to Oita (480k) through Beppu (122k) with a fast train that runs every couple of hours starting at 3am. Or consider the super Inaba that links Okayama (720k) to Tottori (589k). These are clean, well maintained and fast trains that run through mountains on extensive bridge and tunnel structures with regular services running late at night and early in the morning. They connect towns like Tottori that are depopulating and aging. Australian cities would kill for this kind of infrastructure.

It’s also not just trains (which I raise as an example). Tokyo has some of the highest population densities in the developed world but has a large, affordable rental stock; cities have underground and overhead public spaces which relieve congestion at street level; urban rail and bus networks are excellent and well maintained; Japan’s port and airport infrastructure is excellent, as is its postal system. It has the largest newspaper in the world with a guarantee of morning delivery in the widest network. Or consider China’s network of regional airports. Or in contrast watch Americans crowing over Space X as it rediscovers the ability to build rockets, which somehow you guys lost the ability to do.

The US simply can’t do infrastructure well and at a reasonable price. Given this, it’s insane to demand that its decarbonization process rely on heavy infrastructure that it just can’t build, or to pretend that the reason for this particular infrastructure’s cost is the hippies, and not the same suite of reasons that all other infrastructure fails.

(I mean look at your airports, or the NY metro: are you crazy?)

121

Another Nick 04.18.19 at 3:55 am

Will, to clarify it was 448 GW of wind, and 163 GW of solar. More wind or less solar in Germany’s mix doesn’t work nearly as well.

Those figures include all of Germany’s electricity exports to the rest of Europe – and make the assumption there’ll be no upgrades to continental and intercontinental interconnects in the next thirty years.

The most problematic period for Germany was between 16/1/2017 – 25/1/2017. That was the only time in the last >3 years the gas had to come online to cover the shortfall.

Wind in the UK during that same period averaged 29% capacity factor.

ENTSO-E Transparency Platform – Generation By Production Type

Assuming similar scale ups in the UK, that alone would have generated more than the UK and Germany’s total electricity consumption put together.

It would have easily covered Germany’s shortfall during those ten days, which peaked at 770 GWh one on day, and averaged 250 GWh per day. UK wind would have been generating in excess of 4 TWh per day by comparison.

It would take 12 GW interconnect capacity to supply Germany with 350GWh / day. Or 25-30 GW to supply Germany, France and several other European countries shortfalls as well.

Currently UK-Europe interconnect capacity is 4 GW. That’s forecast to grow to 11 GW by 2025, based on current projects underway, so it’s not unfeasible at all to reach 25-30 GW by 2050.

The gas is unnecessary at that point.

European Commission: Projects of common interest – Interactive map

122

Cian 04.18.19 at 3:15 pm

Minor point of order. Fast rail in Asia is along corridors with massive demand (due to high population densities) and is a profit-making operation*. The US just doesn’t have the closely spaced, economically intertwined population centers that Asia does.

Actually it does on the East Coast and West Coast. The US is a country with dense pockets of population, surrounded by nothingness. I also suspect that if you looked closely at Japanese/Korean rail then you would find all kinds of hidden subsidies.

123

Cian 04.18.19 at 3:23 pm

Korea is a pretty high-wage country, and it’s building its APR1400 for about $4,000 per kw all-in. It looks like the APR1400 will actually win its NRC license, so it’s an even better possibility for a US build. I think $4,000 isn’t outlandish for an American CPR1000, with parts sourced from China.

Korea is a country known for being to achieve complex civil engineering projects at low cost (Spain is another one oddly). The US last I checked is the most expensive place in the world to do civil engineering projects.

The main reason for this seems to be a combination of project management expertise (I don’t think Americans realize how poor US managerial skills are at this point) and poor construction skills in the US (ditto). My guess, based upon other projects, would be that the cost to build something in the US would be at least double that of Korea. Based upon previous nuclear projects it would also be very late and it least double the original estimate.

Contrary to what Faustusnotes is stating, while corruption is clearly a huge problem in the US, it doesn’t seem to be the principle reason for project failures. Not that I disagree particularly with his assessment of the US today.

124

Cian 04.18.19 at 3:29 pm

Europe hasn’t “written ‘nuclear’ completely off.” It has a lot of nuclear power. In 2017 Europe produced 850 terrawatt-hours of nuclear energy, a smidge more than the 847 terrawatt-hours in the US (gross). There are currently 8 reactors under construction in Europe, in England, France, Finland, Belarus and Slovakia, compared to 2 in the US.

The one in England seems to have been abandoned. Maybe it’s restarted again, but is certainly not a great example. It only exists because the UK government threw money at it, largely to annoy the hippies (these are the people bringing us Brexit after all). But despite this the Chinese are still very relucant to pursue it for a range of problems, ranging from money (even with the subsidies it isn’t clear it will make money) to technical concerns.

The one in Finland, while technically working (assuming it passes all the acceptance testing) is widely considered a failure and problems means that design will be abandoned. It went seriously over budget and time in ways that seem to be endemic to the design. The precision required to build the thing was beyond the French and Finnish engineering firms involved in the project. It also looks like it won’t deliver on most of the promises made for it.

I don’t disagree that Europe should not be shutting down nuclear power stations early (though some of these nukes are being shut down for reasons of cost). Nobody has really argued that point, which makes it interesting that this is the point you really keep coming back to, rather than other more relevant criticisms.

125

nastywoman 04.18.19 at 3:43 pm

@
”Europe hasn’t “written ‘nuclear’ completely off.”

Yes it has – as your are writing ”that Europe still has a lot of nuclear power” – but like the love for ”antique furniture” – any type of love or even like of ”nuclear” is gone – not only in the ”YUUUGEST” EU economy – Germany but also in all these other European Economies who still try to work through the wrong decision for nuclear they made one or two decades ago – which only proves that no other energy source might be as expensive and thusly difficult to stop – as ”nuclear” – after one made twenty years ago some pact with this ”idiotic devil”?

In 2017 Europe produced 850 terrawatt-hours of nuclear energy, a smidge more than the 847 terrawatt-hours in the US

126

Will Boisvert 04.18.19 at 9:48 pm

FN 120

“Will says that Korea is a “pretty high wage country” and is building its reactors at 4k/kwh. Actually the average salary in Korea is 2/3 that of the USA, so if Will really believes this is an important driver of infrastructure costs he should be advertising those reactors at 6k at least for the USA. Now of course Will is going to claim salaries are not important (so why raise it?) and try to avoid confronting the fact that the US can’t build stuff for other reasons: laziness, incompetence, corruption and poor existing infrastructure.”

No, much of the embodied labor in the plant is still Korean. Korea would supply the parts and civil-construction modules. (Ocean freight is cheap, so won’t have much impact on cost.) On the other hand, some of the embodied labor in the cheap Korean plants is lazy, incompetent, corrupt, overpaid American labor because American companies supply some of their components.

I also high-balled Korean nuclear costs, as is my wont. KHNP reported last September in FT that the construction cost of the finished Shin Kori 4 AP1400 was $3.1 billion for the 1.34 GW (net) plant, that’s $2,313 per kwh. Assuming that is an overnight cost (the article does not say), add 50 percent for an all-in cost of $3,470 per kw. That leaves a 15 percent margin before we hit $4k/kw.

Worth a try.

127

Will Boisvert 04.18.19 at 9:50 pm

AN 121

1. “It would take 12 GW interconnect capacity to supply Germany with 350GWh / day.”

Hmm. It seems like 12 GW of interconnector could supply at most 288 gwh per day, assuming no transmission losses.

Your modeling also seems to be using daily and weekly aggregate data, which can hide shorter-term shortfalls and thus underestimate grid instability. Blackouts and load-shedding incidents that last a few hours are annoying, costly and sometimes dangerous, which is why grids have such strict reliability standards of 99.9-plus percent.

Also, interconnectors go both ways. You would have to model not just periods when Britain overproduces RE to supply Germany’s grid but periods when Britain’s RE flatlines and the interconnectors are draining the German grid instead of supplying it.

I assume your modeling is OK as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really resolve issues of comparative cost, land-use and politics.

2. “it was 448 GW of wind, and 163 GW of solar. More wind or less solar in Germany’s mix doesn’t work nearly as well.”

Good, wind is much more productive than solar in Germany. But wind costs more, so the wind-heavy grid will run an extra $50 billion or so. Even if in theory you could do away with gas backup altogether with interconnectors to Britain (more $billions) you’re still talking a trillion-dollar German WS system, compared to a potentially $360 billion nuclear system to do the same job, without British help or overbuild.

3. “The most problematic period for Germany was between 16/1/2017 – 25/1/2017. That was the only time in the last >3 years the gas had to come online to cover the shortfall. Wind in the UK during that same period averaged 29% capacity factor. Assuming similar scale ups in the UK, that alone would have generated more than the UK and Germany’s total electricity consumption put together.”

You are talking about scaling up to several hundred GW of wind in Britain, and that is not a good assumption. Already at 20 GW there is fierce NIMBY opposition to onshore wind farms, local planning counsels are rejecting them, the government has stopped subsidizing them and installations have stalled. Offshore wind is still getting built, but slowly, and it is 2-3 times more expensive.

RE politics are nowhere near as docile in Britain, France, and elsewhere in Europe as in Germany, and even Germans may reject the overbuilding of the countryside.

4. “The gas is unnecessary at that point.”

The fixation on getting rid of all FF in a WS system is another element of dysfunctional purism that greens need to jettison. A WS-dominated grid really needs a gas backstop, and can still achieve pretty high decarbonization. Trying to get the last few percentage points of gas off the grid balloons your costs and your overbuild for a negligible benefit in emissions, while leaving us vulnerable if the weather gods decide to toy with us. It’s such a disadvantageous cost-benefit equation that, realistically, we are never going to give up gas entirely in a WS-dominated system. Gas is not ideal in my book, but it’s not a deal-breaker either. Anti-nuclear greens need to resign themselves to keeping gas on the grid; that makes the WS project feasible.

128

John Quiggin 04.19.19 at 4:18 am

Not sure if it’s already been mentioned but the nuclear plants KEPCO (Korea) is currently building in the UAE are behind schedule. The cost is opaque, due to a long term service agreement, but in my experience “opaque” usually means “high”

https://gulfnews.com/uae/barakah-plant-delay-sets-back-clean-energy-target-1.62163070

129

faustusnotes 04.19.19 at 6:19 am

John, I’m sure Will can find a way to blame that delay in UAE on anti-nuclear activists. UAE is famously open to dissent, after all!

Will, you’ll note that I didn’t include wage differentials in my original list of reasons why Americans can’t do infrastructure. You raised that furphy, just to dismiss it. Cian makes my point for me: Americans are terrible at infrastructure, can’t build anything, and that’s why your nuclear plants are overpriced. It’s the same in the UK where Hinckley is becoming an extremely unpopular disaster and multiple organizations are trying to pull out of it even though they’re being offered guaranteed future prices.

In short the reasons that Korean power plants work in Spain will not make them work when Koreans build them in the USA. Stop blaming hippies and start blaming management!

130

nastywoman 04.19.19 at 7:13 am

-But on the other hand it’s always fascinating to follow ”nostalgic technical discussions” – as I just came back from one on a blog – where ”the merits” of using – owning and driving a car without a (damn?) computer inside – was discussed.

Do you guys know that the invention and use of the so called ”combustion engine” probably – was – AFTER the invention of ”nuclear” the most ”devastating” and self-defeating stupidity of a world which really can’t afford ”Climate Change”?

And that’s – ”probably” – while we love to discuss such…”stuff” in such detail?

131

Cian 04.19.19 at 1:49 pm

Will said: No, much of the embodied labor in the plant is still Korean. Korea would supply the parts and civil-construction modules. (Ocean freight is cheap, so won’t have much impact on cost.) On the other hand, some of the embodied labor in the cheap Korean plants is lazy, incompetent, corrupt, overpaid American labor because American companies supply some of their components.

You do understand that we were not talking about factory workers, but construction workers. And nobody (other than you) said that construction workers were lazy, or corrupt. And that in fact you are completely misrepresenting the argument (again) because you don’t want to deal with it. So I will lay out as clearly as I can:

1) Building a nuclear power station is a massive civil engineering job that requires a lot of on site labour and building expertise. At this point I’m not sure if you even realize this frankly. On site skills and expertise are extremely important.
2) US construction skills are by international standards pretty low. This is due to a combination of inadequate training and anti-union/low wage management sentiment. This is not the workers fault – it is the fault of the US state and the managers/owners of construction firms. Building a nuclear power station requires a skilled construction workforce. This is a problem for the US right now.
3) Construction Project Management skills in the US are also very low. This has been cited in numerous studies as a bit contribution for why US construction projects routinely go way over budget/schedule. Indeed, it was a major contributor to the failure of the nuclear power station in South Carolina.

That’s it. I was even careful to point out that political corruption in the US does not seem to be a particularly significant contributor to costs. Note that I didn’t say ‘worker corruption’ – that was your contribution. Your anti-worker sentiment is noted. Good for you.

At this point I don’t really see the point in continuing any of this. A financial case against nuclear in the US has been laid out. You have mostly ignored this case, and when you have responded to it you have misrepresented and obfusticated the original arguments. You have also accused myself, Faustusnotes and John of making arguments that we were careful not to make.

132

Cian 04.19.19 at 1:52 pm

It’s the same in the UK where Hinckley is becoming an extremely unpopular disaster and multiple organizations are trying to pull out of it even though they’re being offered guaranteed future prices.

And Finland where the plant was built, possibly successfully (there’s some controversy about this), but was massively over budget, time, etc.

133

Matt 04.19.19 at 5:14 pm

Cian makes my point for me: Americans are terrible at infrastructure, can’t build anything, and that’s why your nuclear plants are overpriced.

The weird thing is that this is true in many but far from all cases. American construction costs for natural gas fueled power plants, large solar farms, and large onshore wind farms are competitive with or even a bit lower than similar projects in other developed countries. Large American electricity transmission projects can take an exceptionally long time to get approval if they cross state lines and need interstate consensus. They are constructed at reasonable costs and speeds once all approvals are in place.

Given the recent experiences of France and Finland, I’d even say that our recent attempts at new reactors are comparable with contemporary attempts at new reactors in other developed countries. South Korea is exceptionally good, not typical, when it comes to building new domestic reactors. Historically, the only electricity projects that have a worse time matching schedule projections than nuclear projects are large reservoir-backed hydroelectric projects [1]. These too tend toward “every site has a unique design” and have a similar problem of being monoliths with complicated interdependent work.

Americans do seem to be stuck with exceptionally expensive and slow subway, bridge, and tunnel projects. I have read many thousands of words from people trying to identify the cause(s) and nothing seems to describe the full elephant.

[1] An international comparative assessment of construction cost overruns for electricity infrastructure

134

Will Boisvert 04.19.19 at 6:10 pm

FN 129

“Cian makes my point for me: Americans are terrible at infrastructure, can’t build anything, and that’s why your nuclear plants are overpriced…. In short the reasons that Korean power plants work in Spain [?] will not make them work when Koreans build them in the USA.”

No, much of the problem is design-specific. China, for example, had cost overruns and multi-year delays building its EPRs and AP1000s, just like America and France and Finland did, but had no trouble building CPR1000s at the same time. That’s because EPRs and AP1000s are just much harder to build than CPR1000s. The design really matters.

So if Americans were to use a constructible and mature design like the CPR1000, and build it in series, without regulatory ratcheting by the NRC, they could match Chinese performance (as they have in the past).

135

Will Boisvert 04.19.19 at 6:21 pm

JQ 128

Yes, the Barakah plant is delayed per:

1) Cracks and voids in the concrete. Those aren’t unheard of in nuclear construction and they can be patched, but I have no idea how much it will cost—probably not enough to make an impression on a $25 billion price tag. But the delay itself will add a lot to financing costs.

2) Training delays. Plant staff were supposed to train on the Korean APR1400s but the opening of those plants was delayed so Emirati staff are behind in their training.

Is all that a harbinger of cost blowouts for the APR1400 in the future? Maybe not. The Shin Kori 4 APR1400 in Korea is starting up this month after a 9-year, very troubled build. It did not have concreting issues, but it did have to have substandard cables with forged quality certifications ripped out and replaced. It also was held offline for two years after it was finished in 2017 for further seismic studies after a Korean EQ rattled politicians. (The studies showed the plant was fine.) Despite all the problems, the plant’s cost was still about $3.1 billion (($4.65 billion all-in?) for 1.34 GW, pretty cheap. And SK4’s specific issues aren’t likely to recur. So worth more tries, maybe the teething pains will subside.

You could look at the APR1400 builds and call them fiascoes. But again a reality check: SK4 and its twin SK3 between them generate three quarters as much electricity every year as the entire Australian wind and solar sectors combined did in 2018. They will do that for 60 years, no storage or grid expansion required. Barakah by itself will generate half again as much yearly energy as Australia’s combined WS sector did last year. Despite the patching and delays, as decarbonization tools these reactors are worth the investment.

So we’re not paying an exorbitant decarbonization opportunity cost by enduring repeated “fiascoes” as we try to get the nuclear formula right. Even the fiascoes almost always yield incomparably productive and valuable clean-energy factories. And if we can work through the problems to get the formula right, as we have in the past, then there’s an enormous payoff for the climate, air quality, landscapes and economics. The argument “because fiascoes, we should stop building nuclear” is wrong-headed.

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faustusnotes 04.20.19 at 2:01 am

Will, being in this thread with you is like being in a conversation with a 40-something single guy who can’t hold down a long-term relationship. “There was this woman A but that failed because of reason X… then there was this chick B but that fell apart because of Y … and of course there was C but she was bad because of Z … and then there was …” Every reason for every failure is unique and different and none of them seem like they’re his fault, but everyone in the conversation can see that this pattern of “unique” reasons all falls down to one common underlying factor – him. They even try to point this out to him, but he’s having none of it – he thinks it’s all feminisms fault, because feminism spoiled women and made them “entitled” or some such shit.

He’s sure that the perfect relationship is just around the corner, if only feminists will stop interfering with the natural relationship of men and women. That’s what it’s like talking to you about nuclear power, Will. It’s exhausting and pointless, and no amount of effort is going to convince you that the problem is not hippies but the technology itself.

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Will Boisvert 04.20.19 at 5:24 am

Cian 131

You are arguing that the US suffers an unusual and general deficit in construction and management skills that make it impossible to build any nuclear plant as cheap and fast as the Chinese and Koreans do. I argue instead that the problems are caused by specific bad designs and regulatory regimes, and that with a cheap, mature design with a mature supply chain, like the CPR1000 and possibly the APR1400, the US nuclear industry would perform well.

You haven’t cited any evidence to support your argument, and it doesn’t ring true for the economy or the electricity sector as a whole. As Matt 133 pointed out, the US does quite well at building gas-fired power plants, RE plants and transmission grids, after permitting. That doesn’t support your theory.

If there is a peculiar US inability to build nuclear plants, it must be shared by France and Finland, which have as much trouble as we do. But none of these countries had trouble building nuclear fast and cheap in previous decades. They began having trouble when designs and regulation became more complex and cumbersome. All this supports my theory that complex design and cumbersome regulation is to blame for troubled nuclear builds. To fit this evidence to your theory we would have to believe that general deficits in construction and management skills strike random countries at random times, but always, by pure coincidence, when nuclear designs and regulations grow more cumbersome.

And the present-day example of China supports my argument. China had cost overruns and multi-year delays building its EPRs and AP1000s, just like America and France and Finland did, but had no trouble building CPR1000s at the same time. That’s because EPRs and AP1000s are just much harder to build than CPR1000s. The design really matters.

A close look at the American AP1000 builds provides plenty more evidence for regulation and especially design being primary drivers of the difficulties.

The design was immature. The detailed blueprints necessary to build the plant weren’t complete when construction started, and Westinghouse chronically missed deadlines in delivering them to construction managers and the module factory at Lake Charles, La. When the blueprints were finished, they often proved to be hard or impossible to build, either at Lake Charles or on site, and had to be redesigned, so more delays until the redesigned blueprints were issued. And the awkward designs led to low productivity at Lake Charles and on site.

Regulators didn’t help by imposing design changes like the hard-to-build composite-panel shield wall for the containment building. Also, the immature design led to dozens of license amendment requests being filed throughout the build which had to vetted by NRC before going in—that takes time.

There were also major problems with an immature supply chain. Components large and small from outside suppliers, from the giant coolant pumps to water tanks, had design and redesign problems that caused delays. To try to catch up work was farmed out to novice suppliers who then had problems coming up to speed on novel and ill-crafted parts.

The Chinese had all the same problems building their AP1000s, and suffered similar delays. At the same time they had no trouble with their CPR1000 builds. So clearly the main problem is with the design, not a general deficit of construction and management skills in the people building them. There was indeed a management problem, but one specific to Westinghouse management’s failure to produce a good, constructible design (and perhaps the utilities’ due diligence failure in not catching that).

Again, a build with a mature design, established supply chain and experienced construction managers won’t suffer those problems.

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Will Boisvert 04.20.19 at 5:25 am

Cian 131
“And nobody (other than you) said that construction workers were lazy, or corrupt…. Note that I didn’t say ‘worker corruption’ – that was your contribution…. You have also accused myself, Faustusnotes and John of making arguments that we were careful not to make.”

What are you talking about? I never said that you or Faustusnotes or JQ said workers were lazy or corrupt.

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Will Boisvert 04.20.19 at 6:12 pm

FN 136

1. “Will, being in this thread with you is like being in a conversation with a 40-something single guy who can’t hold down a long-term relationship. “There was this woman A but that failed because of reason X… then there was this chick B but that fell apart because of Y … and of course there was C but she was bad because of Z … and then there was …” Every reason for every failure is unique and different and none of them seem like they’re his fault, but everyone in the conversation can see that this pattern of “unique” reasons all falls down to one common underlying factor – him. They even try to point this out to him, but he’s having none of it – he thinks it’s all feminisms fault…”

No, I’m not offering a grab-bag of arbitrary, unique and different reasons XYZ, I’m offering a single consistent excuse: nuclear plants get more cumbersome and expensive, mainly in response to regulatory pressures, which slows or stops deployment. Reverting to proven, mature, cheaper designs would therefore solve the problem.

Also, I’m not basing my case on one man’s unverifiable account of private, intimate relationships, as in your analogy. Regulatory and industrial policies regarding nuclear power are made in public, and there’s lots of public evidence and a scholarly literature to support my argument. We see regulatory ratcheting, we see nuclear plant designs getting more cumbersome and expensive in response, and we see the resulting construction delays and cost overruns. You’re not addressing this evidence.

2. “no amount of effort is going to convince you that the problem is not hippies but the technology itself.”

If you’ll read my 33 above you’ll see that I don’t blame “hippies” but rather lawyers, politicians and regulators, with examples. I specifically argue that the antinuclear movement is not hippies, it is the Establishment.

The problem with blaming “the technology itself” is that there are many counterexamples of nuclear plants having been built cheap and fast and then going on to exemplary service records. So we can logically rule out the possibility that nuclear technology itself is unworkable, since there are so many instances of it working fine. To account for failures in *some* nuclear initiatives we have to look to the specific design and regulatory contexts for those failures. Nothing else makes sense.

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Another Nick 04.20.19 at 6:45 pm

Will @ 127

“Hmm. It seems like 12 GW of interconnector could supply at most 288 gwh per day, assuming no transmission losses.”

You’re right. I think I literally decided in my head that 24 * 12 = 240 + 120

“Your modeling also seems to be using daily and weekly aggregate data, which can hide shorter-term shortfalls and thus underestimate grid instability.”

I was using the Fraunhofer data you referenced, so that our figures would match. Their daily figures were also quick to digest and work with. Using the ENTSO-E data, which for Germany is recorded at 15 min intervals, the results are much improved.

For 274 GW offshore wind + 174 GW onshore wind + 163 GW solar + 2.5 TWh storage, there is no problem in 2017, and the only time the gas had to come online/power had to be imported to meet a shortfall, was on the 19th and 20th Jan 2015. 2 days in 4 years. Hardly a “famine”.

If it were gas making up the shortfall, only 2/3rds of Germany’s currently installed gas capacity was required. If it were imported power making up the shortfall, the total was 260 GWh over two days, or 130 GWh per day, or 6 GW of interconnect capacity.

“The fixation on getting rid of all FF in a WS system is another element of dysfunctional purism that greens need to jettison.”

The faster coal and gas are phased out the better. Any proposed solutions should be measured by their efficacy in achieving that.

There are currently 30,000 wind turbines installed in Germany. I don’t find it that difficult to imagine 300,000 three decades from now. Current rollout of onshore wind would have to increase x 1.5, current rollout of offshore wind would have to increase x 6.

The idea there’ll be 10x as many nuclear stations around the world in 2050 is implausible. Current production over the last 30 years would have to increase x 100.

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steven t johnson 04.21.19 at 12:54 am

Larry Niven in Ringworld imagined the Puppeteer civilization coping with the waste heat (not greenhouse gases) from energy production by moving planets away from the sun, in a Klemperer rosette formation. Which goes to show, in principle there’s a solution to every problem.

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Collin Street 04.21.19 at 6:05 am

The problem with blaming “the technology itself” is that there are many counterexamples of nuclear plants having been built cheap and fast and then going on to exemplary service records.

See, the thing is… there’s been about 500 nuclear power reactors built. Of which about… three? have exploded poisoning province-sized areas.

This is actually pretty comparable with the 737 Max: about 400 of those, built, of which two flew themselves into the ground. Now, to be sure the 737 accrued its incidents over a … fifteenth? as long as nuclear power, but “fifteen times safer than a 737 Max” is… actually grotesquely unsafe by normal industrial standards.

No?

Now, I’ve pointed out these sorts of numbers before. You haven’t acknowledged them. You keep on talking about impressive nuclear safety records when you have the evidence to demonstrate that in fact nuclear safety is terrible.

This is a problem, a serious problem; it basically means you aren’t learning. I’m not going to ask, “what the fuck is wrong with you” because I don’t actually need to know, but you need to know.

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Will Boisvert 04.21.19 at 6:19 am

Another Nick 140

“For 274 GW offshore wind + 174 GW onshore wind + 163 GW solar + 2.5 TWh storage”

OK, so now the bulk of your wind is offshore. That’s going to raise the cost by another few hundred billion dollars. You’re looking at a price tag close to $1.5 trillion, roughly four times as much as an equivalent nuclear grid. I’m still not seeing the economic sense in that. (By the way, in your modeling are you keeping German biomass on the grid?)

“Current rollout of onshore wind would have to increase x 1.5, current rollout of offshore wind would have to increase x 6. The idea there’ll be 10x as many nuclear stations around the world in 2050 is implausible. Current production over the last 30 years would have to increase x 100.”

The idea that Germany will raise its offshore wind installation rate X6 is also very implausible, since that’s not the plan. Germany’s official plan is to have 20 GW offshore installed by 2030, up from today’s 6.4 GW, a growth rate of about 13 GW per decade. At that rate it will take 200 years to reach 274 GW of offshore wind, assuming wind turbines last 200 years at sea.

Nuclear could easily decarbonize the current German grid by 2060, to judge by Germany’s historical nuclear rollout rates. Germany is yet another unsung example of a successful nuclear rollout. In the 19 years from 1970 through 1988, West Germany by itself built 21.7 GW of nuclear power, with an economy on average less than half the size of Germany’s current economy. Taking into account the much higher productivity of nuclear gigawatts, that’s over double the absolute growth rate of clean electricity that Germany is targeting for its offshore sector. If we normalize that construction rate to Germany’s current much larger GDP, we could reasonably expect to build 22 GW per decade, so by 2060 we could have a fleet of about 90 GW without breaking a sweat, enough to decarbonize the entire current grid, no overbuild, no grid expansion, no storage, no gas, no forests of wind turbines shadowing the countryside, and at dramatically lower cost than just the offshore component of your WS grid by itself.

France achieved a build rate that high. It built about 60 GW in 25 years from the 1970s to the 1990s, also with a much smaller GDP than Germany has today. A German build rate equal to France’s actual build rate would decarbonize the German grid before 2060. If we normalize France’s build rate to Germany’s current economy, it’s quite realistic to forecast Germany completely decarbonizing the current grid by 2050 or sooner with nuclear. Germany probably wouldn’t need to build Korean or Chinese reactors, just the models they already built and currently have running, all of which were built pretty fast and cheap.

“The faster coal and gas are phased out the better. Any proposed solutions should be measured by their efficacy in achieving that.”

Great—nuclear it is, then.

Seriously, you are not going to remove gas completely from a WS grid. When the government says, “to get the last 3 percentage points of gas off the grid we are going to spend hundreds of billions of euros on batteries and erecting another 50,000 wind turbines,” even the Germans are going to get fed up. Gotta be realistic. And don’t worry about it—a wisp of residual gas is not going to destroy the world.

“There are currently 30,000 wind turbines installed in Germany. I don’t find it that difficult to imagine 300,000 three decades from now.”

Yeah, I can picture it too. That’s the problem.

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Another Nick 04.21.19 at 1:57 pm

Will, it can be done with less offshore and onshore wind, but that requires more storage. Not nearly as much as you claimed upthread however.

136 GW offshore wind + 134 GW onshore wind + 144 GW solar + 3.5 TWh storage

Also works fine, with Germany’s currently installed gas capacity only required to come online for 8 days since 1st Jan 2015. That’s including biomass. If we exclude biomass, it still works fine but the gas has to come on for 10 days since 1st Jan 2015.

So we’re still at well over 99% carbon emissions removed from the electricity sector. I have no issue with >99% either.

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Another Nick 04.21.19 at 3:32 pm

Sorry, I just realised since using the ENTSO-E figures I haven’t been including ‘Hydro Run-of-river and poundage’, and ‘Hydro Reservoir’.

With those added to ‘Hydro Pumped Storage Consumption’, we can do:

136 GW offshore wind + 134 GW onshore wind + 158 GW solar + 3 TWh storage

154 GW offshore wind + 154 GW onshore wind + 165 GW solar + 2.5 TWh storage

In both cases, with biomass still excluded, the gas has to come online for 12 days since 1st Jan 2015, and we’re still seeing over 99% carbon emissions removed from the electricity sector.

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nastywoman 04.21.19 at 8:31 pm

@143±144

Good Lord – as you guys are constantly using Germany in your… ”equations” do you guys know how many Germans in the future won’t need ANY energy from ”the grid” anymore?

Yes?

No?

You obviously didn’t – with trying to produce ”theoretical demand” for a country where in the future most households will be ”self sufficient”-
(without producing any emission at all anymore)

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Will Boisvert 04.21.19 at 9:04 pm

Another Nick 144 145

OK, Nick, assuming your modeling is right, all your scenarios are still running $1 trillion plus once we add grid expansion and cost of gas backup or interconnectors, even at optimistic prices. All of them are 3-4 times what an equivalent nuclear grid would cost. My argument was against JQ’s claim that RE plus storage is cheaper than nuclear, and all your scenarios confirm my position.

Are you treating Hydro Pumped Storage Actual Consumption as load or supply?

148

John Quiggin 04.22.19 at 10:12 am

Will, the problem at this point is that there have been so many failures that no one is going to give nuclear another go in time for it to make any difference. China was the last big hope and they haven’t got costs down enough to make it an appealing option, as witness the slowdown in their program.

India has failed http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Indian-government-takes-steps-to-get-nuclear-back

Russia will probably carry on for a while, but the set of countries willing to deal with them on something as sensitive as nuclear power is pretty small.

The conditions of France in the 1970s, which I discussed a while back, won’t be replicated in any timescale relevant to decarbonization https://johnquiggin.com/2014/04/04/why-nuclear-power-worked-once-in-france-and-might-work-again-in-china

But, at least discussing the issues with you is informative. Pinker et al know less than many of the people in this thread, and it’s annoying to see them given platforms across the world’s leading newspapers.

149

Another Nick 04.22.19 at 1:27 pm

Will: Are you treating Hydro Pumped Storage Actual Consumption as load or supply?

Thanks for that, that should have been obvious. I was treating it as supply. I’ve switched to using Hydro Pumped Storage Actual Aggregated, and subtracting Hydro Pumped Storage Actual Consumption, as it’s not included in the overall load figures. That significantly improves our results again:

140 GW offshore wind + 140 GW onshore wind + 141 GW solar + 3 TWh storage

150 GW offshore wind + 150 GW onshore wind + 150 GW solar + 2.5 TWh storage

There’s now 14 days of Germany’s currently installed gas capacity required, but that’s still less than 1 in 100 days, which is what I’m aiming to restrict this to. We’re still at over 99% of emissions removed, including 99% of gas emissions. (They’re not entire days of gas required btw, but I don’t have time atm to pare down to the actual number of hours required.)

nastywoman, I’m certainly aware of that. It doesn’t really affect what I’m trying to achieve here, which is to determine the quantities of renewables + storage it would take to cover current electricity demand – and to make it as clear as possible that Will’s storage estimates and cost predictions and fear mongering and tales of famine and darkness and despair were miles off.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiloWOFuY08

The more they’re off grid in the future, the more people are likely to adjust their demand when required (eg. cook with a single induction stove top on a medium setting, rather than roasting in the oven for 90mins), which should require less overall storage than I’m attempting to account for.

I’m not so sure Will gets it though, as we can see by his last few comments which have slipped back to ‘how is the government going to afford all of this??’ as opposed to ‘can the economy afford this’.

150

Zamfir 04.22.19 at 2:00 pm

“Good Lord – as you guys are constantly using Germany in your… ”equations” do you guys know how many Germans in the future won’t need ANY energy from ”the grid” anymore?”
I haven’t seen much of such a trend? If anything, I see it move in the opposite direction, at least when it comes to electricity. More Waermepumpen means a shift to more electricity usage in winter, when the PV panels don’t do much. Grid independence is very unattractive at these lattitudes… ( I am Dutch, not German, but the issues are similar, and I have done some work in the German power industry.) Also, household electricity consumption is less than a third of the total!

Will says: “All of them are 3-4 times what an equivalent nuclear grid would cost. “
I don’t think that holds up, mostly reasons mentioned already.

On the nuclear side, you can’t just assume away the costs of increased safety demands. It’s not enough that you personally are OK with a certain affordable level of safety. If you cannot convince the wider public, you have to work with the costs of gold-plating. The nuclear industry has failed to make that case for decades, with the same arguments you use here. Doesn’t make the arguments bad – I am personally fairly OK with them. But after Fukushima, allowed-but-gold-plated is already the hopeful scenario for nuclear. Less gold plating is just not in the cards. I assume that EPR-level goldplating can be done for less than current EPR costs, but how much is anyone’s guess. At the moment, projections much below 5000E/gwe are more hope than fact.

Also on the nuclear side, higher opex for nuclear closes part of the capex gap (especially if we’re assuming a worldwide nuclear rollout and higher uranium costs). Easily 10, perhaps towards 20 billion/year for our calculation case of Germany’s current electricity demand. That’s worth another 100 or 200 billion in capex.

Next up: phasing. The really high capex part of Nick’s scenario comes towards the end. Until then, the renewable scenario is plain cheaper for the same GHG reduction. That buys time, very needed since the wider public is hesitant enough about pricey GHG reductions. It also has option value. We can still add nuclear plants to the mix later on if the RE scenario starts to disappoint, or we might discover that it is easier than expected.

On the RE side, focussing on Germany in isolation is overly conservative. RE generation will be averaged over a larger region, and can be drawn from more favourable parts of Europe. This cuts hard into the required overcapacity and storage numbers. There are some other potential gains to ease the variability burden, like demand management (especially in combination with electric vehicles).

And in the end, people are willing to pay a premium for RE or nuclear, just to get rid of the safety worry and the waste issue. That premium isn’t infinite, but nuclear’s cost argument used to be “much cheaper than unaffordable RE”, not “we’re more expensive but in the long run the balance shifts to our side”.

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John Quiggin 04.23.19 at 5:51 am

A couple more points on why it is too late for nuclear.

1. The time from initial approval to operation is almost always 10 years or more, even when construction goes smoothly, which it usually doesn’t. So, there is no scope for any nuclear contribution to decarbonization before 2030, except for the 50 GW or so currently under construction or ready to start. By then, most developed countries should be coal-free, or nearly so.

2. Looking at the list of 50 or so plants under construction, they cover about a dozen different designs https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/plans-for-new-reactors-worldwide.aspx AFAICT, there is no design likely to reach more than 10-15 plants, which is too few for substantial economies of scale, or for the accumulation of adequate evidence on operating performance.

152

nastywoman 04.23.19 at 7:39 am

@
”Also, household electricity consumption is less than a third of the total”!

But ”household electricity consumption” is what any -(not only German) – consumers are mainly interested in.
And if the 2/3 of the whole energy consumption of a country -(like Germany) easily can be covered by NON-nuclear – WE – ”private households” are able to focus on OUR needs and wishes to produce our electricity with NO emission at all!

153

Zamfir 04.23.19 at 10:25 am

@JohnQ, I think your 10-year point about nuclear power is true, but also somewhat misleading. For all our happy calculations in this thread, nothing is on track for serious decarbonization by 2030. Worldwide electricity consumption is about 25,000 Twh/year. Primary energy is 150,000

Wind is now adding about 150 TWh/year/year, and accelerating. PV adds another 100, and accelerating harder. Hydro another 100, but with limited scope for acceleration. Nuclear something like 20 to 30, with dips into the negative numbers. Its historic construction peak was about 100 TWh/year/year – similar to wind or solar today.

We need to get a construction rate of multiple 1000s of TWh/year/year of low-GHG energy, and then keep that up that rate for several decades. Such a rate would green the grid while also allowing other energy consumers to move to electrification, and then hopefully cross at some point with falling energy demand. It would be nice if we reach such a construction rate by 2030. The serious decarbonization would then start, not end.

Nuclear might not be ready for that, but neither is anything else right now. The question is not really what we can build in the 2020s, the question is what rate we can sustain in the 2030s, 2040s after ramping up in the 2020s. Will’s claim is that nuclear can eventually sustain a higher rate, because the alternatives will reach saturation difficulties -for the grid, for required space. If he is right about that (big if), then this will quickly make up for a lower construction rate in the 2020s.

154

Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:08 pm

Zamfir 150,

“On the nuclear side, you can’t just assume away the costs of increased safety demands…. But after Fukushima, allowed-but-gold-plated is already the hopeful scenario for nuclear. Less gold plating is just not in the cards. At the moment, projections much below 5000E/gwe are more hope than fact.”

My estimate of $4,000 per kw nuclear cost is based on the observed cost of the South Korean APR1400 reactor, which is a Gen III design that should soon get its US NRC license. In South Korea its actual all-in cost is about $3,500 per kw, so there’s some margin in my price point. SK achieved those low costs for its first two of the series, despite troubled builds. A systematic campaign to build dozens of reactors could achieve economies of scale and series and lower costs further.

155

Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:10 pm

Zamfir 150

“Also on the nuclear side, higher opex for nuclear closes part of the capex gap (especially if we’re assuming a worldwide nuclear rollout and higher uranium costs). Easily 10, perhaps towards 20 billion/year for our calculation case of Germany’s current electricity demand. That’s worth another 100 or 200 billion in capex.”

WS opex will also rise. At German capacity factors onshore wind and solar opex is roughtly $10 per mwh, versus $20-30 per mwh for nuclear. But offshore wind has higher opex, which apparently will dominate the grid according to Another Nick. You also have to charge to the WS generators the opex of expanded transmission infrastructure, battery storage and gas backup that they require. And overbuild will reduce WS capacity factors and further raise per-kwh opex. A nuclear grid and WS grid would probably have about the same per-kwh opex.

You also have to factor into the capex gap the faster depreciation of WS assets lasting maybe 40 years and batteries lasting 20-30 years, maybe less, which I haven’t counted above.

156

Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:11 pm

Zamfir 150

“There are some other potential gains to ease the variability burden, like demand management (especially in combination with electric vehicles).”

No to demand management—if it scales there are major economic disruptions and hidden costs. People will not drain their car batteries to feed the grid during supply crises, because that will jeopardize their transportation. EVs should be regarded as one-way load, not a storage reservoir for the grid.

157

Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:19 pm

Zamfir 150

“Next up: phasing. The really high capex part of Nick’s scenario comes towards the end. Until then, the renewable scenario is plain cheaper for the same GHG reduction.”

No, not really.

1. The high capex part is already here, with curtailment issues and major expenditures for grid expansion and storage now catching up with the WS sector (or rather the grids that subsidize it).

In China extensive curtailment has applied a brake on wind and solar deployments, at less than 10 percent penetrations, and necessitated hundreds of billion of dollars being spent on grid expansion.

Germany is awaiting a $50 billion euro transmission project slated for 2025 before it can (meagerly) accelerate offshore wind deployment. 100 billion more euros of transmission or more will likely be needed to accommodate the scale of deployments Another Nick is envisioning.

In California wind and solar is starting to suffer significant curtailment, with pricey battery storage being mandated by the state to cope with it. It’s worse than that. The coming shutdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant was justified in part as a way to ease the problem of solar curtailment—by taking off the grid an enormous quantity of competing zero-emissions energy. In the future solar overproduction will start crowding out wind, hydor and then cannibalizing itself even more, with no net carbon benefit, unless more expensive battery storage is built. Giant transmission lines hundreds of miles long, costing many billions, are also being proposed to address the problem.

This is all happening at pretty low WS penetrations.

2. The “phasing” advantage you perceive only applies to an already developed grid with plenty of reliable generators and no demand growth. In that case WS can displace generation while the reliable capacity keeps the grid stable, with no spending needed on storage or backup because the backup is already there.

That doesn’t hold in the case of a system with growing demand that does not already have reliable capacity to back up new generation. In that case, to service growing demand reliably, backup, storage (and always transmission) has to grow in tandem with the new WS.

This is clear in the case of a developing country starting from scratch. If they want their growing electricity use to be reliable to support development, then at the same time they are building WS they must also build a complete complement of FF plants capable of running the whole grid on their own, and an extra helping of transmission even at very low WS penetration. So capital expenses much higher than the WS generators per se.

This also applies to developed countries if they want to electrify their entire energy system, as they must to decarbonize. Your phasing advantage would only apply if a developed country strictly avoids expanding electricity consumption while WS is deplacing existing FF. No EVs, no electrified heating and cooking etc, so as not to expand demand. If demand does expand then new reliable capacity—FF if it is not nuclear–must immediately be built as well to backstop it.

So either a country slows decarbonization by holding electricity consumption flat, or it has to build a costly package of backup along with its WS. Germany has chosen the former. It has not expanded its electricity use at all during the Energiewende, which it should be doing to decarbonize its off-grid economy. But if they did that they would have to build more FF plants, which would cost a lot and look bad. So the WS strategy has imposed on Germany a slow pace of decarbonization (and still with very high costs).

3. For a given amount of WS generation you get less decarbonization proper than you would with nuclear, right from the start. WS preferentially displaces gas from the grid, a lower-emissions fuel than coal. Nuclear is a perfect substitute for coal, and preferentially displaces the base-load coal layer of the merit order, with higher emissions reduction per kwh of clean electricity, starting with the first nuke that comes on line. Also, when WS does displace gas and coal, it often forces them out of baseload generation and into “balancing” mode where they ramp up and down more, which is less fuel-efficient than running steadily in baseload. So when WS displaces FF, some of that benefit may be lost by forcing FF generators to burn more carbon per kwh on their remaining generation.

That’s assuming WS displace FF at all, which is not always the case. WS often ends up displacing other zero-emissions energy sources. German WS has had almost no impact on greenhouse emissions to date, because it has mainly displaced nuclear. California WS has displaced an enormous amount of nuclear and hydro, with no emissions benefit. France is planning to compensate for its growing WS by shutting down a third of its nuclear fleet and balancing with hydro and gas, with no emissions benefit at all for the money; France will likely recarbonize a bit over the next decade. That’s the phasing of WS in the real world.

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Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:20 pm

Zamfir 150,

–“nuclear’s cost argument used to be “much cheaper than unaffordable RE”, not “we’re more expensive but in the long run the balance shifts to our side”.”

Even with no extra storage or transmission costs, nuclear at $4,000 per kw gives WS a run for its money. In Germany, with solar hypothetically costing $500 per kw at 11 percent capacity factor, you would have to buy eight kw, costing $4,000 to get as much production as a single nuclear kilowatt costing $4,000.

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Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:26 pm

Zamfir 150

“If you cannot convince the wider public, you have to work with the costs of gold-plating. The nuclear industry has failed to make that case for decades, with the same arguments you use here.”

The “nuclear industry” hasn’t made these arguments, only a handful of environmentalists have. The industry dances to the tune of the regulator without much complaint, which is why it shifted to gold-plated Gen III.

The wider public almost never hears a coherent case for the safety and benefits of nuclear power. Pinker gets a quarter page in the New York Times. The Chernobyl accident gets an upcoming 5-part miniseries drama on HBO, featuring alarmist misinformation spouted by gorgeous movie stars.

The idea that “the wider public” drives nuclear regulatory ratcheting is mostly wrong. The antinuclear movement is an elite movement operating through elite institutions—law firms, lobbying firms, think tanks, courts, regulatory bodies. The wider public usually doesn’t pay attention to nuclear safety. (Even in Japan after Fukushima, pro-nuclear candidates have done well in elections for Prime Minister, prefectural governors, etc.) The public simply follows the assessment of the regulator on nuclear safety. If the regulator accepts a Gen II plant like the CPR1000, the public will accept that it’s safe.

We have an exact test of this proposition. In 2016 the Watts Bar 2 plant opened in Tennessee, a really obsolete Gen II plant that was abandoned for 20 years and then completed under a grandfathered license. No way would that plant have gotten a new license in 2016 from the NRC, and it certainly doesn’t meet Gen III standards of gold-plating. But there was no public opposition to WB2, despite its seeming reversion to a lower, “obsolete” safety standard. A CPR1000 is a safer plant than WB2. So if the regulator licenses it, the public will accept it.

Sometimes an informed public intevenes to support nuclear power against an antinuclear government. That happened in Taiwan recently when a referendum to rescind the government’s nuclear phase-out policy passed by 60 percent of the vote, after an information campaign by scientists and pro-nuclear environmentalists (not the nuclear utility, which is controlled by the government). Unfortunately, the government then announced it would ignore the referendum, which it cannot legally do under the constitution, and close the nukes anyway.

What stands in the way of cheap nuclear isn’t the public, it’s antinuclear elites—not on the picket lines, but in the government. Challenging the elite consensus against nuclear stands a fair chance of winning public support. Worth a try.

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Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:28 pm

JQ 148

1. “China was the last big hope and they haven’t got costs down enough to make it an appealing option, as witness the slowdown in their program.”

Their costs were fine when they were building CPR1000s. They started having cost problems when they switched to Gen III, largely to cater to regulators in export markets. Go back to the CPR1000 and cost problems go away.

2. “Russia will probably carry on for a while, but the set of countries willing to deal with them on something as sensitive as nuclear power is pretty small.”

India, China, Iran, Egypt, Finland, Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia, that’s a pretty big market they’re active in now.

“Will, the problem at this point is that there have been so many failures that no one is going to give nuclear another go in time for it to make any difference…. won’t be replicated in any timescale relevant to decarbonization.”

No, there’s no deadline for nuclear to “make a difference.” Clean energy isn’t a project that has an endpoint. If all the world’s energy came from wind and solar tomorrow, we would still have to rebuild the whole system over the next 40 years, and we would still have to question whether those are the best technologies to use.

In the real world, RE isn’t meeting deadlines either. It is nowhere close to halting FF growth, much less reversing it. The global grid will be using more FF in 2030 then now, and likely still more in 2040, so 20 years from now there will be at least as much carbon for nuclear plants to displace. We know nuclear can be deployed much faster and cheaper than it is now, nothing but elite prejudice stands in the way. So starting in on straightforward reforms to accomplish that (see 105) is a very relevant and timely thing to do.

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Will Boisvert 04.23.19 at 5:34 pm

JQ 151

1. “The time from initial approval to operation is almost always 10 years or more, even when construction goes smoothly, which it usually doesn’t.”

China does it in 6-7 years, approval to grid connection. In the West there are lots of existing nuclear plants where site characterization and infrastructure is already done and reactors could be built very quickly.

2. “So, there is no scope for any nuclear contribution to decarbonization before 2030, except for the 50 GW or so currently under construction or ready to start. By then, most developed countries should be coal-free, or nearly so.”

Again, this “2030 or bust” meme is a canard. Plenty of developed countries will be burning coal in 2030. Coal consumption grew smartly last year, up 1.1 percent. In 2030 the global grid will be burning more FF than ever and there will be ample scope for nuclear to supply the clean energy that WS isn’t supplying. The time for reforms to speed nuclear deployment is right now.

And why have you suddenly restricted the conversation to “developed countries” and coal? Do developing countries and gas and oil now not need decarbonizing?

3. “there is no design likely to reach more than 10-15 plants, which is too few for substantial economies of scale, or for the accumulation of adequate evidence on operating performance.”

CPR1000 builds were very cheap and fast at series number 10. The APR1400 came in at $3,500 per kw at series number 2.

There’s no reason why series have to stop at 15. You’re treating arbitrary policy choices as if they were ineluctable laws of nature. That’s a formula for entrenching a status quo that can’t be rationally justified.

LWRs are a well-understood technology, and their “operating performance” is predictable. The Shin Kori 3 reactor posted a 100 percent capacity factor in 2017, its first full year of operation. (It was shuttered for 5 months in 2018 as a pointless “precaution” after an earthquake that did it no damage.)

China’s Sanmen 2 AP1000 posted an 86 percent capacity factor last year, falling short of 100 percent because it was ramping during commissioning tests for most of its operation. Its twin Sanmen 1 posted a capacity factor of 99.4 percent.

The reactors work.

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John Quiggin 04.24.19 at 4:58 am

Will @156, I checked the three plants you mentioned in your comment. For Sanmen 1 and 2, Wikipedia says the contract was agreed in 2007 and operation commenced in 2018.

Shin Kori 3 was approved in 2007 https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/KHNP-granted-construction-permit-for-Shin-Kori-3-a

If those are representative, 10 years seems to be about right.

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faustusnotes 04.24.19 at 6:37 am

Will says

The antinuclear movement is an elite movement operating through elite institutions—law firms, lobbying firms, think tanks, courts, regulatory bodies. The wider public usually doesn’t pay attention to nuclear safety

I was on the train to Shinjuku 3 chome yesterday, passed through Akasaka Mitsuke and picked up one of the anti-nuclear activists who hangs around ministry buildings there. Tall, middle-aged dude in hakama and white martial arts top, carrying a megaphone emblazoned with no nuke stickers and wearing a yellow bandana. Spent the day standing outside a ministry building yelling at passers-by. I don’t think he’s very elite.

The few times I see anti-nuclear demonstrations here they’re grumpy old men and women in vests carrying home made signs. Is this your elite movement?

As for the idea that the anti-nuclear movement works through think tanks – haha. Which think tank do you work for Will, and who funds it? What are the anti-nuclear think tanks? Greenpeace has 250,000 members in the US, and it’s true one of its issues is anti-nuclear activism. Tell me Will, how many members does your think tank have? Which of the two movements is “elite”? The national movement with 250,000 members that announces on its website that it doesn’t solicit corporate donations, or the Breakthrough Institute, which has a couple of members and a long list of donors including “The Anthropocene Institute” (who funds their glossy website?), The Ahmansons (a pair of rich philanthropists), a bunch of clothing companies, and a bunch of private family funds?

It’s always funny when people who’re funded by philanthropists to work at think tanks selling nuclear power and glyphosate start talking about how activist organizations are elite. How much are you guys paid to market glyphosate and attack the IARC, Will? Have you scrubbed articles about glyphosate safety after it was revealed in court that Monsanto pays scientists to provide favourable reports? Do you think that you’re not an elite movement when you work for an organization that receives this kind of funding?

Do you think that the nuclear industry does not work through “law firms, lobbying firms, think tanks, courts, regulatory bodies”? Do you think Greenpeace get to talk to the British government like this? Do they have the same influence on the EPA and the US government at the moment as the coal industry or as companies like General Electric? Do you think that Greenpeace get as much technical support and lobbying opportunities in South Korea as the nuclear industry does?

It’s okay to complain about anti-nuclear activists. But it’s really grubby to pretend that you’re not an elite movement, while receiving money from a thinktank like the Breakthrough Institute.

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Zamfir 04.24.19 at 12:54 pm

Will says: “Even with no extra storage or transmission costs, nuclear at $4,000 per kw gives WS a run for its money. “
That’s neglecting operating costs though. 2 CT/kwh extra for nuclear is probably conservative, for a future with strongly increased uranium demand. At 5% discount rate, that’s an NPV of 3000 euro/kW on top of that 4000.

On the issue of politics: regardless where you think the balance of forces came from, it’s still true that it was enough for a deadly price ratcheting, repeated in many countries. That was before Fukushima, when Japan was the go-to example how a friendlier regulatory climate could lower costs without compronising safety.

I think this is the core question of nuclear power: what would change this balance of forces? Where is the force pushing for easier regulation going to come from? Industry was not strong enough, and it is only getting weaker. CO2-concerned greens have only been confirmed in their hopes for renewables – and renewables are starting to become attractive for energy-security people who used to be the hard core of political support for nuclear. There is a strong block of price-sensitive people who don’t like greeneries. But those people cheer for fossil fuels my

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Matt 04.24.19 at 5:44 pm

In 2016 the Watts Bar 2 plant opened in Tennessee, a really obsolete Gen II plant that was abandoned for 20 years and then completed under a grandfathered license. No way would that plant have gotten a new license in 2016 from the NRC, and it certainly doesn’t meet Gen III standards of gold-plating.

Watts Bar 2 was “about 80%” completed when construction work halted in 1985. It was projected to cost $2.5 billion to finish when completion work resumed in 2007. It ended up about $2.7 billion due to requirements added post-Fukushima. 20% of 1180 MWe at $2.5 billion is $10,590 per kilowatt, or $11,440/kW at $2.7 billion. Either way it doesn’t demonstrate a Generation II “nuclear kilowatt costing $4,000.”

Maybe you’re thinking: That’s not how complex projects work. The last “about 20%” can turn out to take way more than 20% of the effort! I’m sympathetic to that argument. Maybe a Generation II reactor built from scratch to the same standards as currently operating American Generation II reactors would cost only $4000/kW. At best, the completion of Watts Bar 2 leaves that hypothesis untested.

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Will Boisvert 04.24.19 at 10:25 pm

JQ 157,

“Will @156, I checked the three plants you mentioned in your comment. For Sanmen 1 and 2, Wikipedia says the contract was agreed in 2007 and operation commenced in 2018…. Shin Kori 3 was approved in 2007. If those are representative, 10 years seems to be about right.”

Right, but those are FOAK builds, in the case of Sanmen 1 and 2 with a bad and immature design–the blueprints weren’t finished when they started!–and at a virgin site. A mature design for an established plant should go faster.

For example China’s Ning De 1 and 2 CPR1ooos were approved September 2006, with grid connection for Ning De 1 coming in December 2012, 6 years 3 months later, and Ning De 2 January 2014, 7 years 4 months. Pretty fast.

KHNP actually applied for a construction permit for Shin Kori 3 in 2003, expecting grid connection in 2010. But WNA says political and regulatory delays meant the construction license to start site work wasn’t issued until April 2008. Grid connection was January 2016, so 7 years 9 months after license approval. That was after about 2 years delay during construction due to the counterfeit parts certifications, which would presumably not occur in subsequent builds. Unfortunately, subsequent builds in Korea have been delayed by political suspension and seismic anxiety.

So the big issues are FOAK teething pains and approval/regulatory delays. The first should not happen with a mature design, and the second shouldn’t happen with a better regulatory regime.

The construction can then go quick, like recent CPR1000 builds. Fuqing 4, 4 years 10 months; Yangjiang 3, 4 years 11 months; Yangjiang 4, 4 years 2 months; Yiangjang 5–actually a new ACPR1000–4 years 8 months.

7 years approval to grid is doable, but not without planning and regulatory reform, which could take a while. But I’m not worried that the party will be over in 2030, so it’s worth getting started.

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Matt 04.25.19 at 1:53 am

Followup to my last comment: Watts Bar 2 had a more complicated history than I realized. This white paper archived from the TVA web site explains better:

When work stopped in 1985, Watts Bar Unit 2 was considered about 80 percent complete, with a total investment of about $1.7 billion. In the years that followed, various pieces of equipment, such as pumps, motors and valves, were salvaged for use in Watts Bar Unit 1 or in Watts Bar’s sister plant, Sequoyah. A Detailed Scoping, Estimating and Planning (DSEP) study in 2007 found Watts Bar Unit 2 to be effectively 60 percent complete and estimated that Unit 2 could be finished in about 60 months at a cost of about $2.5 billion.

My previous cost-per-watt calculation for finishing the reactor was double what it should have been, then. The estimated cost was really $5295/kW and actual cost was really $5720/kW. Still well above $4000/kW, but not as bad as I first thought.

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faustusnotes 04.25.19 at 2:08 am

Here we get to the nub of the matter:

But I’m not worried that the party will be over in 2030, so it’s worth getting started.

We need to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 to reach climate goals. But you are proposing a strategy that if started right now would require a huge carbon-intensive investment (concrete etc) to begin replacing fossil fuels in 2026, under the most ambitious timetable which you yourself admit requires “planning and regulatory reform”. This “planning and regulatory reform” would require that the nuclear industry in the USA somehow take on and beat the fossil fuel industry, all within 1-2 years, so that it can begin a roll-out which under your most ambitious schedule would then come into play by 2028 or 2029.

You agree that the main goal of increased nuclear power would be to phase out fossil fuel power, which in the USA means coal first and then gas. You’ve spent a lot of time decrying environmentalist opposition to nuclear but you haven’t considered what the coal industry is doing. Have you considered the possibility that an ambitious program to destroy the coal industry in the next 10 years will receive considerable resistance from that industry? What are your plans to deal with that?

But the key thing here is that you are “not worried that the party will be over in 2030”. So you are, in essence, ignorant of what climate change will do. You don’t actually care do you? You just see AGW as an opportunity to shill for your funders, but you don’t actually care if we effectively meet climate goals, because you either don’t care or don’t understand how dangerous this problem is.

Perhaps that’s why you haven’t commented on the other thread on climate change currently on CT, but only turn up to comment specifically on nuclear power threads. Are you being paid to do this?

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Matt 04.25.19 at 8:30 pm

…the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report today finding that the world is headed for a dangerous temperature rise of 1.5°C by 2030 if dramatic action isn’t taken. This is far earlier than previously thought. The report says the world needs to get emissions down to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid hitting the 1.5 mark, which scientists warn is that point at which climate change becomes dangerous to human life.

Emissions are not going to drop 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. Not a single major emitter is on track for that kind of dramatic change. Much less all of them. We have 11 years left to make deep emissions cuts that should have started 30 years ago. It won’t be done on schedule. We’re headed deep into the danger zone.

I fear that the IPCC’s actual warning is turning into “the world is ending 12 years from 2018” by a game of telephone. Humans are not going to do the things the IPCC has recommended fast enough to stabilize temperature rise at a “safe” level, and we’re not all going to die fast enough that we can just stop planning for 2031 and beyond.

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Will Boisvert 04.25.19 at 10:43 pm

ZF 164

1. “Will says: “Even with no extra storage or transmission costs, nuclear at $4,000 per kw gives WS a run for its money. “ That’s neglecting operating costs though. 2 CT/kwh extra for nuclear is probably conservative, for a future with strongly increased uranium demand. At 5% discount rate, that’s an NPV of 3000 euro/kW on top of that 4000.”

And it’s underestimating solar costs, and neglecting their rise in opex in the future, see 155, and its ignoring transmission and storage and backup costs for WS, and its ignoring the higher opex for the offshore wind that dominates AN’s scenarios. For example, with 106 gw of WS on the grid, Germany is currently building $57 billion in new transmission for WS, $537 for every nominal kilowatt, $1,300 to $4,888 per CF-derated kw. More transmission costs will follow. Haven’t even gotten to backup and storage yet.

2. Uranium prices will likely not inflate nuclear opex very much. The price of uranium in nuclear fuel is currently 0.17 cents per kwh. Tripling the price of uranium will add 0.34 cents per kwh. How likely is it to triple? Well, in 1980 the price was $40 per pound. 10 years ago it was $42 per pound. 5 years ago it was $32 per pound. Today it’s $26 per pound. Those are nominal prices, not inflation-adjusted. We will find new uranium, process it more cheaply, recycle, eventually build more fuel-efficient reactors. Don’t bet on expensive uranium.

3. “what would change this balance of forces?”

Well, a referendum accompanied by public advocacy by scientists did the trick in Taiwan—or would have had the antinuclear government not broken the law and defied the electoral verdict.

Worth a try.

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Will Boisvert 04.25.19 at 10:46 pm

Matt 165 167

1. “[Watts Bar 2] doesn’t demonstrate a Generation II “nuclear kilowatt costing $4,000.””

I never said it did. I offered it as evidence that the public will accept “obsolete” Gen II plants being commissioned nowadays. ZF argued that the public would not, and WB2 disproves that. The CPR1000 and APR1400 builds are the evidence that nuclear can be built cheap at $4,000 per kw or less. WB2 shows that we can build mature, cheaper models without public opposition. Only irrational regulatory strictures stand in the way.

2. “Watts Bar 2 was “about 80%” completed when construction work halted in 1985. It was projected to cost $2.5 billion to finish when completion work resumed in 2007. It ended up about $2.7 billion due to requirements added post-Fukushima. 20% of 1180 MWe at $2.5 billion is $10,590 per kilowatt, or $11,440/kW at $2.7 billion…. My previous cost-per-watt calculation for finishing the reactor was double what it should have been, then. The estimated cost was really $5295/kW and actual cost was really $5720/kW. Still well above $4000/kW, but not as bad as I first thought.”

As you write, parts were cannibalized from WB2 and also some just deteriorated during the shutdown and had to be replaced. That put the plant at nominally 60 percent completion when construction restarted. But that’s still not the right factor for converting cost-to-complete into total construction cost because it ignores the large extra overhead of simply restarting, replanning and restaffing the suspended project and the qualitative difficulty of out-of-sequence reconstruction.

The analogy would be taking a car that was 80 percent of the way down the assembly line, then stopping it, shutting down the assembly line, firing all the workers, letting the unfinished car sit in the shuttered factory for 20 years, ripping out 25 percent of the parts that were already installed, and finally deciding to restart the assembly line and finish the car. In that case the final 40 percent is likely to cost more than the whole car would have without the hiatus.

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Will Boisvert 04.25.19 at 11:20 pm

FN 168

1. “We need to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 to reach climate goals. But you are proposing a strategy that if started right now would require a huge carbon-intensive investment (concrete etc) to begin replacing fossil fuels in 2026, under the most ambitious timetable which you yourself admit requires “planning and regulatory reform”.

It’s very unlikely that we will meet that goal. We will still be doing a lot of heavy-duty decarbonizing in 2030, 2040, 2050 and beyond. So it makes sense to start in on long-term efforts to speed up decarbonization in the future, even if they take a few years to grid.

Also, it’s not like the nuclear industry is dormant until “my program” kicks in. There are 57 gw in the pipeline and new projects are being started now. It’s a false meme to portray nuclear as pie-in-the-sky for the future when it is contributing a lot in the present.

2. “Have you considered the possibility that an ambitious program to destroy the coal industry in the next 10 years will receive considerable resistance from that industry? What are your plans to deal with that?”

I’m going to let AOC handle that. She is hell on the coal industry.

3. “Are you being paid to do this?”

If only.

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