September 20th, 2011

A damning chart by Arnulf Grubler of IIASA in Austria, via Joe Romm:

Figure 13: Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed

Remember that the French nuclear programme had the most favourable institutional and political environment imaginable – a centralised polity, a stable political consensus administered by a technically-trained élite, a single capable purchaser insisting on maximum standardisation – and costs still went up.

Why the negative learning curve? Grubler and Romm have good ideas. They think that as you gain experience with building reactors, you discover more ways things can go wrong, so you add a layer of complexity, which later on leads to more problems, and so on. I’d add that as you make reactors more complex, you increase the amount of highly skilled engineering, management, regulatory, and political labour required.


While the nuclear industry is often quick to point at public opposition and regulatory uncertainty as reasons for real cost escalation, it may be more productive to start asking whether these trends are not intrinsic to the very nature of the technology itself: large-scale, lumpy, and requiring a formidable ability to manage complexity in both construction and operation. These intrinsic characteristics of the technology limit essentially all classical mechanisms of cost improvements – standardization, large series, and a large number of quasi-identical experiences that can lead to technological learning and ultimate cost reductions – except one: increases in unit size, i.e., economies of scale.

Anyway you don’t need an explanation to know that the chart dooms nuclear energy. Nobody can afford a technology of increasing costs. The free market understood this long ago, and nuclear power is still only kept afloat by generous subsidy and public guarantees of long-tail liabilities like waste disposal.

The latest corporation still active in in the sector to head for the door is the behemoth Siemens, which built all 17 reactors of Germany’s nuclear park. They pitch the decision as a response to German public opinion and Merkel’s decision to denuclearize German power, but it’s surely a heart a commercial one: their renewables business is the company’s fastest growing sector, and you put your effort where the money is.

I’m sure that some commenters on this blog will let engineering romanticism override their libertarian principles and say that nuclear power has been killed by over-regulation rather than its own weaknesses. Basically, a fusspot public that will not weigh the risks correctly. Naval marine nuclear reactors don’t seem to have the same problems, because navies accept the higher risks. That may be so, but the fusspot public is the sovereign people, and it really, really does not like very nasty radiation accidents from installations that have repeatedly been described as safe, safe, safe. If the industry had been honest and said from the outset “these is no such thing as completely safe, every machine or drug that works is dangerous, life is all trade-offs”, things might have been different. But it did not; and will die by its lies.

I do not see this as good news. Denuclearization requires a huge investment in renewables just to tread water on carbon emissions. Without nuclear, it’s harder to guarantee carbon-free electricity supplies to deal with the variability of wind and solar. On the other hand, closing the chapter releases scarce technical and managerial resources to concentrate on stuff that works: a learning curve requires people to learn. Not to mention risk capital, though not much has being going nuclear’s way recently.

Question: is there any reason to think that Grubler’s problem won’t apply to fusion, when ITER finally gets it to work?

A lot more effort should be going into geothermal. Here is some rock music recorded deep under Khazad-dûm the hot-dry-rock pilot plant at Soultz in Alsace, as supercritical hot water under high pressure cracks the granite.

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13 Responses to “A nail in a lead coffin”

  1. prasad says:

    “is there any reason to think that Grubler’s problem won’t apply to fusion, when ITER finally gets it to work?”

    What’s wrong with the obvious one? The fundamental trouble with fission is keeping things from going critical. Lose control and you have a horrible safety issue. Fusion isn’t like that – unless you do an awful lot of clever stuff to overcome internuclear repulsion, you don’t get anything happening at all. Fission wants to blow up and become a bomb. Fusion wants to stop.

  2. prasad says:

    Also, the waste products are much less of a problem.

  3. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    I’m a nucleophile from way back. One of the reasons why I always tuned out the nucleophobes is that their arguments kept shifting with time–typically a sign of an intellectually weak position. However, Grubler’s chart (and Wimberley’s accompanying argument) nicely refutes this objection. The sound you hear is of somebody reconsidering their position.

    (“when ITER finally gets it to work”. Fusion has always been like Brazil–always the country of the future. However, the future finally might be coming for Brazil–maybe I shouldn’t be skeptical about fusion.)

  4. I can’t tell if the dollar/franc values are inflation-adjusted. If not, then some of the upward curve is inflation, since the graph spans a few decades.

    It is surely significant in any case that nuclear construction is now more expensive per watt than well-sited photovoltaics. And I doubt nuclear would win much on maintenance costs either (though I’d love to see numbers).

  5. Tom Womack says:

    The dollar/franc values are inflation-adjusted (maybe the axes have been relabelled since you put your post).

    prasad: I think fission usually wants to melt down and become a puddle, rather than blowing up and becoming a bomb; but neither circumstance is very good for the property value of your reactor, and applying that amount of thermal energy to anything containing chemistry causes it to get enthusiastically bigger, catch fire if it has any chance to catch fire, and start spreading dust (which is thoroughly radioactive dust since it’s spent time next to an unconstrained fission reactor) in many directions.

  6. Dennis says:

    @ Prasad

    The reaction ITER uses is tritium + deuterium = helium4 + 14.1 MeV n

    The helium is fine, but the neutron is problematic. The plan is to use the neutrons to breed tritium from Li6, but it’s very unlikely that they can avoid neutron activation of other things in the vicinity of the reactor, like the reactor itself.

    Note that the goal of ITER is to have a relatively clean burning nuclear process. It’s not and can’t be completely clean. The reactor itself might be relatively fail-safe, although I’d hesitate to classify anything that produces 500MW of energy over 15 minutes or so as incapable of exploding. That is a lot of power to be shedding.

  7. James says:

    Sorry if I did not read carefully, but did they incorporate reduced externalized costs? I know there were no major accidents in France, but if the risk did go down with the increasing costs, then they essentially internalized the costs of those risks and the chart would not be entirely correct.

  8. James: The provisional version of Grubler’s paper (only covering France) is here. Romm links to the final version behind a paywall. Grubler discusses the measurement issues in some detail. His data are corrected for general inflation and levelized. The costs include decommissioning. I couldn’t see any discussion of dramatic changes in methodology over the life of the programme: this isn’t the pluralistic American environment, where different utilities might calculate things differently, the French data originally come from stable centralised bureaucracies (EDF, CEA).
    Short of a future expert refutation of Grubler’s final paper by someone with credentials equivalent to his, I suggest we accept his finding.

  9. Things that are useless says:

    Anywhere you go on this mudball, you drill down 100,000 feet and you will have all of the heat you will ever need to generate electricity permanently.

    RE: Navy accepting risks. Why hasn’t the Thresher power plant ever been recovered? Why hasn’t the hydrogen bomb that was lost off of Thule Air Base in Greenland ever been recovered? The technology is there, the will is blocked by a bunch of two bit politicians who have been promoted way too highly in the military. Totally incapable of foreseeing a disaster in the making.

  10. Don says:

    It’s been a long time since there was new U.S. commercial nuclear construction, but back then a huge proportion of the work at a nuclear construction site (memory says 40%) was re-work. That argues for the hypothesis that the technology is expensive because it’s inherently complicated.

  11. SamChevre says:

    As the article is behind a paywall, I have a very basic question. How does this cost escalation compare to that of building roads, or coal-fired power plants, over the same timeframe? (It’s my impression that per-mile costs for new roads, and per-megawatt costs for coal-burning plants, has increased dramatically faster than inflation.)

  12. BM says:

    (The high end of that graph is *still* cheaper than solar photovoltaic, isn’t it?)

    From the engineering end, I think what a nuclear engineer would tell you would be: yes, the standard PWR and BWR designs are “inherently complex”. The core, as a thing in itself, has all sorts of obvious failure modes. Each of these can be kept in check by a backup system. But the backup system needs a backup system, and a failover system, and a backup-failover-system, and failover-backup-system-diagnostics, etc., and so on to the edges of human ability to manage.

    However, I’d like to emphasize that this fact is known to nuclear engineers, and they sincerely think they can move in a different direction with modern plant designs.

    If you look at the (entirely theoretical AFAIK) “generation IV” reactor designs, they’re all intended to go in exactly the cheapo direction you describe—they’re supposed to be inherently safe. That’s supposed to mean that you can cut the pumps, turn off the computers, and walk away, and the abandoned hulk won’t release radiation. That doesn’t mean that the plant itself—the core—isn’t complicated, but it does mean that the complications can peter out without reaching 99.999999% reliability. You DO need six billion dollars’ worth of failsafes if your worst-case scenario is “we forced the abandonment of a city of 50,000″. You do not need six billion dollars’ worth of failsafes if your worst-case scenario is “we had to pull out one of the modules and buy a new one.” There’s also a lot of design progress towards small-scale, modular reactors—100MW is typical—that could have the mass-production economics you mention.

    This doesn’t make me an optimist, especially post-Fukushima, but the nuclear engineers I know are aware of the economic barriers to building future $6B super-power-plants, and they’re aware of the human-factors and complexity barriers to operating them safely. Which gives me some hope.

  13. Shorter BM: Nuclear engineers to taxpayers – yes, we screwed up first time, sorry, so please let us have a second go with a different untested design philosophy!
    SamChevre: I can’t find data quickly and I have no comparative advantage over you in Googling. In conventional fossil power, gas turbines are much cheaper per kw than coal so the substitution must have driven down average fossil costs. Wind and solar have conventional learning-by-doing curves. The cost of solar PV modules fell by 7% in the USA last month, on trend not a blip.
    These curves again result from inherent characteristics of the technologies: small unit size, allowing unproblematic scaling; a large number of producers, and sharp competition between them in a global market; a standardized range of products; a short time to installation, allowing quick feedback and rapid product cycles. All this applies more to solar than wind, so the wind learning curve is flatter, but it still slopes in the right direction. Solar thermal is just starting, but the same factors will apply, especially to the steerable mirrors and control gear. Geothermal does have one inherently bespoke characteristic – the geology of each site is unique, as with an oil well. But once you’ve decided where to drill the holes (there is a risk of small earthquakes if you get it wrong), the rest can be standardised and we can confidently expect economies of scale.