There are three common lies you hear about why renewables can not replace nuclear power:
- They dont run 24/7 like reactors and you dont want to be without power just because the wind stopped blowing or the sun dipped behind a cloud.
- They are too expensive (require too great govt subsidy) to run
- They can not be put in place fast enough and represent only a tiny fraction (excluding large hydro) of the most countries energy mix.
If you read the comments on articles about nuclear power you will hear these reasons repeatedly, they are the backbone of the opposition to real renewables. Today, these paragraphs appeared in BusinessWeek:
“Utilities are pulling out of nuclear projects across Europe as uncertainty over energy prices makes them too risky. EON’s withdrawal from Finland follows its decision in September 2011, along with SSE Plc and RWE AG (RWE), to give up building nuclear plants in the U.K.
German 2013 power dropped to a record 46.90 euros ($60.85) a megawatt-hour on Oct. 15 as output from wind and solar cuts usage of gas and coal plants.”
So the first lie about renewables not being available 24/7 is not actually meant for technicians and energy analysts who know better, it is for lay people to believe and become skeptical about wind. Intermittent renewable resources can be forecasted and “firmed“. This is happening all over the world, it works out to cost about US$0.004/kWh to store wind power.
What about the cost argument? Well, these paragraphs from Business Week (hardly the environmental press) are telling us the exact opposite. That because of the ramped up introduction of wind and solar in the wake of nuclear plants being closed in Germany, renewables are entering the market and driving prices down, displacing both gas and coal as they do it. And as i have written about before, on hot days this past summer Germany was generating 50% of it’s electricity from solar alone. So much for not being able to ramp up quickly enough
EONs withdraw from this project is quite likely to kill it.
After i started writing this post the new broke of China’s new energy plan. China had halted approval of new reactor construction after Fukushima for the last year and a half. So the nuclear industry was hopeful that they would get good news from the new 5 year plan. They got some, but clean energy activist got far more. China decided to slow the growth of nuclear power significantly from the targets it has confirmed as recently as earlier this month. It has eliminated all proposed inland reactors because of protests from population centers. China will begin approval of new reactors, ending its Fukushima moratorium, but will approve 10 to 20 reactors fewer than previously planned by 2015.
While the business press is focused on the restart of reduced new nuclear projects, reading the full plan reveals that the target installed capacities for 2015 are:
290 GW Hydro power
100 GW wind power
40 GW nuclear power
21 GW solar power
[Remember that installed capacity is not what is delivered to the grid, these numbers must be multiplied by capacity factors, which are higher for nuclear than intermittent renewables] But when these numbers are compared to where China was at the end of 2011
230 GW hydro power (first in the world)
47 GW wind power (first in the world)
12.5 GW nuclear power
3 GW solar power
We can see that China’s real commitment is to the rapid growth on non-nuclear, real renewable power.
The UK Guardian reports that China is in top level negotiations with the UK to build 5 reactors in the country, with a likely underestimated cost of US$ 55 billion for the 5 reactors. Prior to Fukushima, German utilities and French state nuclear industry were the lead contenders for the construction of this Horizon project.
After Fukushima melted down three times, the German utilities, in response to the German states rapid phase out plans, decided to walk away from building new British reactors (tho not from renewables in the UK). France has elected (by French standards) a nuclear skeptic Prime Minister Hollande, who may not be willing to repeat the embarrassing mistakes of the new reactor in Finland which are 10 years late and at nearly 200% over budget.
Why shouldn’t China build these reactors? you might well ask. China is graduating more engineers of all types than the rest of the world combined. China is manufacturing everything from Ipads, to running shoes, to solar panels. Are reactors really anything other than another type of widget?
Actually, they are. Nuclear reactors are one of the most complex things humans make, they are more than turbines and reactor cores, they are cultures as much as they are machines. Central to the failing of the Fukushima plant was regulator capture. The bureaucrats charged with protecting public safety were more concerned about protecting the profits of the nuclear utility. The recent report of the Japanese diet demands that the regulator become fully independent to break this regulatory capture.
In China, the regulators are part of the same centralized, unelected government which is committed to building these reactors. In a little noticed piece in the Christian Science Monitor from March of this year (shortly after Fukushima), the head of the State Nuclear Development Corporation said “problems in 14 areas have been found and need to be resolved.” Now you might think this is a wonderful, important and transparent revelation. But the room full of Chinese reporters then asked not a single follow up question about this very vague and likely highly problematic pronouncement.
China is using a capitalist shell game to make this take over seem competitive. Two different Chinese nuclear construction companies are teaming up with Japanese owned Westinghouse and the French giant Areva. They will make separate bids on this project to create the illusion of competition to make the Brits feel comfortable with this exotic solution. At this point all the players without Chinese partners have little chance at winning because their reactor designs are not approved.
There is a tremendous amount written and known about safety culture. It requires critical observation on the part of workers and managers, it requires a willingness to speak up when problems are seen and a willingness of management to consider expensive fixes to unforecasted problems. The self critical nature of the Chinese nuclear culture makes the pre-Fukushima regulators of Japan look fully independent and critically engaged.
But China has billions to front in this nuclear con game, so we will pretend safety culture is something you can buy, like a pressure vessel or a politician.