15 Jan 10 Eddie's Blog Global

Those who live in Glasshouses…

An article appeared on the Financial Times on Thursday 7th January. It argues that nuclear is the cheapest low carbon electricity source. The article was written by Vincent de Rivaz, CEO of the French owned EDF energy, which plans to build at least four new reactors in Britain at a cost of around £20 billion. In particular, the claim was made that nuclear is the cheapest large-scale low-carbon electricity source.

There can be no question that nuclear generates electricity without releasing any CO2 and that it will continue to do this, and has a role to play in a future lower CO2 world, if not a sustainable world.

As to the claim that it’s the cheapest large-scale low-carbon electricity source; one wonders how this was calculated. It is difficult to compare two generating methodologies, one of whose power is free and whose capital cost is high, with another whose capital cost is high and whose fuel is not free. It has also to be pointed out that the annual operating and maintenance costs of nuclear power are considerably in excess of wind power. Wind turbines switch themselves on and off automatically, having an availability of 97/98%, and apart from the occasional breakdown are subject to annual overhaul once a year.

So the question is how to compare two such systems.

Both nuclear power and wind power stations are long lasting industrial complexes.

With periodic maintenance and the odd replacement of components, I would expect a wind farm to last more or less indefinitely. There are no high temperatures or high pressures which eat into the useful life of all steel components.

A nuclear power plant will last forty years at a stretch. Thereafter it more or less needs a complete refurbishment. Throughout this period the fuel will have been paid for and the staffing of 300 people approximately will be needed to run it.

By contrast an offshore wind fired power station will be in receipt of ROCs (the support regime for twenty years). Thereafter the price can fall away to pretty close to zero. It is no longer in need of a subsidy because the capital cost will have been paid for.

So for twenty years electricity from an offshore wind farm costs in the order of 15 Euro cents a kWhr. After twenty years and for the next eighty years the price can be as low as 4 Euro cents a kWhr.

Throughout this period, including the first twenty year period when it is in receipt of ROCs, the cost of the wind farm will have been static. It will have a risk reducing effect on the volatility of all fossil fuel prices including uranium.

I am not seeking to make the point that nuclear energy is necessarily a bad thing. I do not share the view that just because nuclear leaves a long trail of liabilities behind it when it closes down that it renders nuclear undoable.

I seek to be realistic in my assessment of the relative costs of wind and nuclear. I believe that all forms of low carbon technologies are worthy of consideration and should be deployed. I have never tired of pointing out that the biggest risk facing humanity is global warming. Whatever we need to do, however unpalatable, then we must be prepared to do it.

In saying all this let me be absolutely clear about one thing; wind is by far the cheapest solution. Wind is only in need of support during the period when the capital cost is being amortized. It is by and large a very long lasting piece of equipment. It is not subjected to high temperatures and pressures, its failure mechanisms are mainly fatigue and corrosion. The world has been dealing with corrosion at sea for a very long period of time and I would not anticipate that wind energy would cause too much of a burden in the future.

I see little point in the CEO of a large nuclear supplied generation set-up attacking the newcomer – wind energy. All solutions are necessary so long as they generate electricity without increasing the CO2 burden on the atmosphere.

Fossil U-235 is the oldest of the fossil fuels, probably there since the formation of the earth. How much is around? How much will be left over when China builds thirty new nuclear power stations? What price will U-235 get to? How realistic would it be to base our entire future on nuclear power? When would the waste get reprocessed and for how long? What happens to the decay product plutonium 239 whose half life is 24,000+ years?

One of the reasons why advocates of the nuclear industry should not try to rubbish offshore wind has to do with the old adage, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones”. The nuclear industry is the only one I know of which cannot look after its own trail of liabilities. It cannot be run in the private sector. Governments must undertake to put money to work more or less indefinitely, long after the nuclear power station has closed down.