Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nuclear doubts

George Monbiot's recent post on nuclear power is a valuable contribution to the debate. My doubts include the following:
If measures taken now to prevent climate breakdown are already 'too little too late' then how wise is it to build a new generation of nuclear plants for societies likely to be stretched to near or beyond their ability to cope with disruptive change?  In a more turbulent world, regulatory systems are likely to be even more vulnerable to capture by corporate profiteers (privatising gains, nationalising losses) while security systems are likely to be more vulnerable to breach by hostile actors. What could be the actual costs of just one major terrorist incident at a nuclear power plant in a densely populated country?

What if PV does end up costing $1 per Watt in ten years or so (recent breakthroughs suggest this may be possible, albeit very far from certain), while the cost of nuclear power does not decline significantly from its current level (something that may be quite likely, especially if the costs of security measures and waste management are taken into account)?
I would be glad to see these doubts dispelled/shown to be mistaken.

P.S. a view (pdf) from Paul Mobbs

P.S. 1 April: John Vidal says the actual impacts of nuclear accidents are much worse than is often claimed. Evidence or anecdote? Testament to psychological impacts rather than quantifiable physical ones?


Anonymous said...

Yes. The cost of solar PV falls 20% for every doubling in production. By contrast the cost of nuclear power does not seem to fall - on the contrary it goes up with the rising price of uranium from ever lower quality ores, and the rising cost of trying to make reactors safe.

So if a sensible level of investment goes into solar PV, by the time nuclear power stations are ready in 15 years or so, they will already be economically undermined by solar PV.

In fact, it could even be that it would be batter not to even turn them on - as the moment you do that you incur massive costs for decommissioning and waste disposal.

Caspar Henderson said...

Thanks. As they say, never make predictions, especially about the future, but (!) I would guess that step changes in technology could prove more significant than increases in production volumes as far as PV goes. Also, new energy technologies will (one hopes) come online in a changing environment: smart grids, demand management, radically improved energy storage systems aka batteries etc.

My hunch, and that's all it is, is that nuclear fission plants likely to resemble dreadnoughts. Advice to pro-nuclear campaigners: update "we want eight and we won't wait" to "we want ten [or other number], no if but when"

Oliver Tickell said...

Step changes in technology are what drives power laws such as this, like the declining cost of computer memory chips. Just why technologies so often follow power laws is a mystery - but proven by experience. And of course, it's the increase in demand (resulting in this case from subsidies, feed-in tariffs etc) that drives production volume, competition, investment and technology development, and brings the price down. As the price declines, so the technology becomes economically attractive in its own right and further support is no longer needed. I agree with Monbiot that the feed-in tariffs for solar PV in the UK are an expensive and inefficient mechanism, but we should create a more efficient mechanism and invest heavily in it in order to achieve the production volumes and drive down costs. The sums we are preparing to spend on nuclear will be amply sufficient and bring a global benefit - the whole world will benefit from the lower PV prices.