15 March 2011

Nuclear Power is Not Going Away

According to the NYT, China and India are moving forward with their nuclear ambitions.  When demands for energy access meets concerns about energy risks, access usually trumps.
Despite Japan’s crisis, India and China and some other energy-ravenous countries say they plan to keep using their nuclear power plants and building new ones.

The Japanese disaster has led some energy officials in the United States and in industrialized European nations to think twice about nuclear expansion. And if a huge release of radiation worsens the crisis, even big developing nations might reconsider their ambitious plans. But for now, while acknowledging the need for safety, they say their unmet energy needs give them little choice but to continue investing in nuclear power.

“Ours is a very power-hungry country,“ Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, said during a news conference Monday in Mumbai. Nearly 40 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people do not have regular access to electricity, Mr. Banerjee said. “It is essential for us to have further electricity generation.“

And in China, which has the world’s most ambitious nuclear expansion plans, a vice minister of environment, Zhang Lijun, said on Saturday that Japan’s difficulties would not deter his nation’s nuclear rollout.

With those two countries driving the expansion — and countries from elsewhere in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East also embracing nuclear power in response to high fossil fuel prices and concerns about global warming — the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry trade group.


  1. If the tradeoff is between: 1) a strong risk that millions will suffer or die prematurely from lack of access to energy, and 2) a very small risk that a smaller number of people may get sick or die from a nuclear accident some day, American Chicken Littles will hyperventilate over the risk of a nuclear accident.

  2. Whicn energy officials in the US?

    The administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power," Chu said in testimony before a House subcommittee. "The administration is committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry."

    It seems to me the Secretary of the US Department of Energy is the only energy official that counts in the US.

  3. In the case of China, they are developing the much safer LFTR type reactors. No fuel rods to melt. No radioactive materials under high pressure. Passive shut down.

    "China Takes Lead in Race for Clean Nuclear Power"
    "China has officially announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, taking a crucial step towards shifting to nuclear power as a primary energy source.
    The project was unveiled at the annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference in Shanghai last week, and reported in the Wen Hui Bao newspaper (Google English translation here)."


  4. "...443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years..."

    That seems very hard to believe. I doubt the U.S. and western Europe will build even 20 in the next 15 years. Let's say 25 for the U.S., western Europe, and Japan.

    Maybe 50 for the rest of the world outside China and India? So that's like 370 in India and China in the next 15 years.

    P.S. Here's a breakdown by country:


    Only 324 are even "proposed"...and 10 of those are in Italy. I would be willing to take very healthy odds that Italy won't have 10 new reactors operating in 15 years.

    P.P.S. And no way the U.S. is going to build the 23 "proposed" plants in 15 years.

  5. @markbahner

    The 'big build' in the developed world for base load generating capacity occurred in the 1970's and 1980's.

    In the US 1/3 of our coal fired generating capacity is already 40 years old, 90 percent of it will be 40 years old in 20 years.

    In the US we are going to have to build at least 300GW of baseload in the next 20-25 years no matter what.

    The same is true of Europe.
    The EU-27 already imports 40% of it's coal.

    Maybe we end up doing like the Germans, point at all the windmills and solar panels and quietly build more coal fired plants that will run spew another 40 years in order to keep the lights on.

  6. Here's an industry perspective on the situation in the US:

    "Exelon, the nation’s biggest nuclear utility, with 17 plants, estimates that new nuclear plants are more expensive than any other energy source except photovoltaic cells."

  7. A viewpoint related to my last comment (by John Quiggin, published in the Australian Financial Review): "Even assuming the best possible outcome from the Japanese crisis, the economic case for nuclear power, already fragile, has been severely, and probably fatally, damaged. At least eleven reactors have been taken off line. ... But why are the economics of nuclear so bad? In part, it is simply a matter of technology. Nuclear power has turned out to be more expensive than its advocates have expected, while alternative sources of energy, particularly gas, have become cheaper."

    And "But the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. ... More important than these fears, however, is the fear and ignorance displayed by those who have obstructed the most important single factor needed for nuclear power to become viable – a price on emissions of carbon dioxide."

  8. There are reasons besides economics for nuclear. One is geopolitical concerns; Japan is entirely reliant on imports of fossil fuels. If there was a global supply disruption, their options would be limited.

    China and India have been pursuing them in part to reduce pollution and coal depletion.

  9. #6 Jonathon

    To quote Exelon
    John Rowe, chief executive of Exelon, said in a speech last week. “They are not economic because of energy prices, an excess of generating capacity and very low load growth.”

    For a nuclear plant to be 'cost effective' it has to achieve a very high utilization rate.

    If we take a hypothetical $6 billion GW nuclear plant financed at 5% that's $300 million in financing costs per year. Then just to make it easy we add in $100 million in operating costs for a total cost of $400 million per year.

    If we run the plant all out we end up with 8 TWh for a wholesale cost of 5 cents/KWh.

    If we can only sell the power 60% of the time because no one is up at 3 AM we have to get a minimum of 8.5 cents/KWh to cover out costs.

    With fuel costs for coal fired plants ranging between 1 and 4 cents/KWh and fuel costs for natural gas plants ranging between 4 and 6 cents/KWh there is no way in much of the US for a nuclear plant to compete with an already paid for fossil plant.

    New Nuclear is only competitive in parts the US when compared against the costs of replacing something else that was running at 80+ percent of capacity.

    Hence we see a lot of interest in the US Southeast where coal is relatively expensive and a lot of their coal fired capacity is nearing 'end of useful life'.