We need vocal public support for nuclear – this is the industry’s most pressing challenge.

I participated in the WNA Annual Symposium in London earlier this month.  During the event I had ample opportunity to discuss my last post on developing a better understanding of the beliefs behind the public’s view of nuclear power and what we as an industry need to do going forward.

But in the meanwhile, we have had quite a bit of unsettling news.  The push towards reducing the use of nuclear energy in the established nuclear countries has been accelerating.  Most of all we see that Japan is moving towards a policy of no nuclear post 2030s.  During the symposium the common thought was that the 15% option may win the day but when the 0% option seemed to be the one moving forward, most of the industry were somewhat stunned.  To date this policy has not been implemented as Japan’s business and industrial sector has finally spoken up.  But this is far from a win.  The reality is that in Japan 70% of the public are opposed to nuclear and would like to see it phased out over time.

Other countries have seen similar outcomes.  Belgium has decided to close its Doel 1&2 units in 2015 rather than have their lives extended for 10 more years.  In Canada the new government of Quebec has announced it will not refurbish and life extend the Gentilly-2 station and even in France, the most nuclear country in the world, government has announced that Fessenheim will be closed in 2016 and a long term goal of reducing the reliance on nuclear from its current 75% to about 50%.

We have become somewhat battle weary in the industry so we tend to rationalize the bad news and look to the good news – and there is considerable good news.  The UK is supporting new nuclear and moving forward, new build is underway in the US, Canada is committed to refurbishing its Darlington station and new build continues  to move forward, albeit slowly.  The middle east is embracing nuclear with the UAE having its project well underway and Saudi Arabia committed to a new nuclear program. India and Russia are both growing their programs; and of course, China is going to be booming and building, leading the world in new nuclear.

So why am I so concerned with the recent trends in some countries?  It is not simply the act of shutting down plants or reducing the share of nuclear – it is the rationale behind these decisions.  The fundamental belief driving these policies is “less nuclear is better than more” – or in other words, if we can do without nuclear then we should.  Now why would anyone believe that less is better than more  – there is only one reason and that is the real underlying belief – that nuclear power is dangerous.  That’s it.  If we didn’t believe that nuclear is dangerous there is no reason to reduce reliance on what is actually a carbon free and environmentally benign energy source.   And this is not a belief that we should let stand.

Look at the recent decision in Canada.  The newly elected Premier of Quebec Mme Marois has stated “I want this gesture to become a symbol of Quebec’s commitment to the environment and the welfare of future generations”.  Or let’s look at the decision in France to close Fessenheim, France’s oldest station in 2016 when it reaches its 40 year life.  (This is even though the French regulator has already approved its suitability to operate for another 10 years).  These decisions are purely political – with the belief that this is what the public wants.  In the case of France, a national debate will be launched to discuss the impeding “energy transition”.

The issue was wonderfully set out by Mark Lynas in his presentation at the WNA Symposium.  In his talk, he told a story of a Japanese couple on a train somewhere in the north of England, who pointed out of the window and asked him if a power station in the distance was nuclear.  When Mark made it clear that no, it was not a nuclear plant but rather a coal station, the couple were clearly relieved. And this led Mark to ask himself if the world had gone mad. How could a power source that kills more people every day than nuclear has done in 50 years of operation be the preferred choice for anyone?

Well, looking at what is happening in Germany, in Belgium, in France and in Japan – the question becomes a valid one.  Has the world gone mad?  Is turning our backs on the world’s safest, cleanest and most efficient energy source the way to the future?

To some extent the answer is yes, the world has gone mad.  But I say yes, not for the reasons you would think, but because as the world works to turn away from nuclear for reasons that make no sense in science; as the public believes that nuclear power is inherently dangerous and the issue is whether or not we can safely manage these dangerous machines; and as these decisions have real negative impacts to environments, economies and the health and safety of people in these countries; where are the supporters?  Now I don’t mean the supporters from the industry, the scientists or the industrialists who all understand the benefits of nuclear; the so called “experts”, but are also all seen as biased and prejudiced in their support.  I mean those members of the public who should be leading the charge to fight to stop the nonsense.  After all, the public are ones to really suffer from a dirtier environment and more expensive electricity.

The industry needs an ever growing group of activists who represent the public, not the industry, to fight for more nuclear.  We need those who believe that the world is a better place with nuclear power in it than without it.  We do see in France, industry is speaking out.  In Japan industry is working hard to keep government from making a decision that will have profound impact on the economy of Japan.  And as I have said in earlier posts, we have some key environmentalists who have seen the benefits of nuclear power and how it can contribute to their cause.  Those like Mark Lynas, George Monbiot and Stewart Brand and others.  These guys are all working hard and speaking out on the side that is less popular with their peers – thus giving even more credibility to them and their arguments.  And there is progress.  NEI just reported that public support for nuclear is rising in the US, closing in on pre-Fukushima levels.

In his WNA talk, Mark Lynas notes that rebalancing public perceptions of risk more towards what science can tell us objectively is central to any nuclear renaissance and that unbalanced risk perceptions are behind nuclear’s major challenges.

This is true.  I agree.  We also need to note that the way forward is long and hard because decisions are made based on emotion, not scientific fact.  What we need are public protests in Germany demanding that nuclear not be shutdown.  We need public protests in Japan supporting nuclear restarts.  And to get to this point, most of all we need the public not to be afraid.  Fear is a powerful emotion that is very difficult to overcome.

The road is a long one.  We need to work with experts in public opinion and make the arguments available to opinion leaders in the communities.  For example, we know the benefits of nuclear medicine for our health, yet anecdotally, we also understand that doctors were just as afraid after Fukushima as anyone else.  There were cases where they were recommending and then performed abortions for fearful mothers.  Yet we also know that these same doctors would not hesitate to prescribe a CT scan or x-ray, even if the benefit is doubtful just to placate a patient who has health worries.  And the likelihood is that the dose from these medical tests would be greater than the exposure from Fukushima.

We also argue that we must educate people when they are young.  We must bring nuclear energy into the schools so that students understand it more and fear it less.  But we also know that teachers as a group tend towards being anti-nuclear.

Hence the problem.  Those that are trusted in society like our doctors and teachers are not necessarily on our side.  These are the groups that should be more open to scientific proof.  These are two groups that we need to work on to move our arguments forward.  This is just an example but I think it shows that the climb is a steep one and the work is hard.  But now is the time to move.  We must all work together to build public support – and that means combating the key issue – that nuclear is inherently dangerous.  We must work to help people understand the reality that nuclear power is less dangerous than most alternatives and that the positives are essential for a prosperous, healthy future for us all.

So coming back to Mark Lynas and his thesis.  We need to do much more to use science as the source of information to make arguments and formulate public policy.  But is that enough?  The real question we all need to ask ourselves is what do we need to do so that the Japanese couple Mark met on the train is no longer afraid?

Are gas prices too low – or nuclear costs too high? Or a bit of both??

“Nuclear is a business, not a religion
John Rowe, Chairman and CEO of Exelon (August 15, 2011)

In his speech to the American Nuclear Society Utility Working Conference in Hollywood, Fla. entitled “My Last Nuclear Speech”, Rowe, while accepting that nuclear is an important option to meet climate change and other policy objectives; states very matter of factly that nuclear is not competitive at this time in the US.  And given this statement is coming from the CEO of America’s largest nuclear utility, it is important to pay attention.

In his talk, he refers to four conditions he laid out twenty years ago for nuclear success:

  • the right reactor technology with passive designs;
  • a workable solution to the waste problem;
  • a need for new generation; and
  • a shortage of natural gas and stable high prices to make the economics right

It is this last condition that is the big issue today due to a huge increase of shale gas into the US market.   Shale gas is good for the country, but bad for new nuclear development as it has resulted in low gas prices thus having a significant impact on nuclear competitiveness.

And indeed they are low.  In the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook (AEO 2011), the assumption is that gas prices stay below $5/million Btu until 2020, below $6/ million Btu until 2025 and then below $7/ million Btu until 2035.  Prices far below the peak of almost $10/ million Btu reached before 2009.

 Source: AEO 2011

While low gas prices present a major challenge, we cannot control gas prices, so we in the industry must focus on what we can control – and that is the cost of building new nuclear units.  In my blog of last December, I discussed the widening gap of nuclear capital costs between east and west noting that the cost of new nuclear plants is trending to less than $2,000 /kW in China while now higher than $5,000 /kW in the US.  Since that time the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook (AEO 2011) was issued and the impact of higher cost assumptions on new nuclear is very evident.  The reference case only has five new nuclear units in the US.  Watts Bar will be completed at TVA and four new units will be built to take advantage of government incentives.

The reason for this base case is clear.  With its current assumptions on costs, nuclear cannot compete with gas.  And the issue is really a combination of two assumptions – first the ongoing low cost of gas and second, a relatively high capital cost for nuclear.  The following table has been published by the US government in its AEO 2011.  The results are stark with new advanced nuclear costing 80% more than new advanced combined cycle gas plants.  Now given the assumptions, these results are not too surprising but, none-the-less, they point to a very  real issue for nuclear in the US going forward.   And the nuclear assumptions do appear reasonable so while varying the assumptions can make improvements,  there is a large gap to close.

However, the news is not all bad.  A sensitivity case assuming that lower nuclear plant costs can be achieved does indeed show more nuclear in America’s future.  In the EIA Low Nuclear Cost Scenario, the assumption is that nuclear is 20% less cost today and continues to decline until its cost is 40% less in 2035. This translates into a drop from about $5,400 /kW as the base case assumption to about $3,200/kW, a very reasonable and sensible target.  In this scenario, new nuclear plants do get built with more units as the price declines in the outer years.

Source: AEO 2011

This brings nuclear into the range of gas costs and given a change of some other assumptions it has the potential to be very competitive.   First of all, if gas consumption does increase as projected and becomes the fuel of choice for America (as currently anticipated), and there are environmental difficulties adding cost to extracting shale gas, it is  very reasonable to project somewhat higher gas prices.  Keep in mind that even a short term price of $6 or $7/ million Btu will have a significant positive impact on the comparative economics.

And, from a policy perspective, a continuation of the loan guarantee program can be a very effective way to reduce the cost of nuclear.  As seen below, nuclear power is extremely sensitive to the assumption on discount rate while gas is very insensitive (due to the capital intensity of nuclear versus the fuel intensity of gas).  Therefore a loan guarantee that brings down the cost of capital will have a large beneficial impact to the competitiveness of nuclear.

Source: OECD/IEA Projected Cost of Electricity 2010 Edition

So what does this all mean?  Going back to my comments in December, since waiting for gas prices to increase is not a viable strategy, then we must focus our efforts on reducing the capital cost of new nuclear units (Let’s get back below $4,000/kW and the discussion will change very quickly!).

And that means developing CONFIDENCE!  And confidence comes from doing as we have seen  with the booming Chinese program  – major cost improvements due to learning by doing and series production of standardized designs.  In the US, we see the opposite as costs continue to rise in an environment where securing commitments for new projects is moving very slowly.

So what should we (the industry) be doing?  With US companies supplying technology and major components to projects in  China, they are gaining experience in building in the most dynamic market in the world.  The question then becomes, are we ready to really learn from this experience and take full advantage of it?  We need to make use of the proven supply chain and experts from wherever it makes most sense, to the maximum extent possible.  If a combination of Western (primarily American) and Chinese experts and equipment is what is succeeding in China, then we need to repeat this for projects in the west.  Of course, the share will change as there will be more western content in a North American plant than in a Chinese plant, but we should not be afraid to make use of high quality low cost global supply to keep costs under control.

If we do, the price of nuclear power in the west will start to drop quickly and continue to improve and many new plants will be built.  If we don’t, then we face the prospect of having to pay the price of relearning the lessons that have already been learned elsewhere and, as shown in the table above, we cannot afford this.   For example, building 20 or 30 new US designed units with a somewhat lower domestic content at a competitive price creates ongoing opportunity for the industry versus one or two new units maximizing domestic  content demonstrating poor economics.  It is obvious which option creates the most sustainable jobs in the US for the long term.

So my conclusion stays the same as it was in December.    Nuclear power can be an economic option for electricity generation.  Now it is up to the industry in the west to ensure that lessons learned in Asia are applied quickly enough to ensure the competitiveness of planned projects and get the nuclear renaissance in the west back on track.

After all, Nuclear is a business, not a religion……

Note: A new study in Japan shows that even considering the costs of the Fukushima accident, nuclear is likely to be the most economic option for generating electricity  relative to fossil fuels.  This demonstrates that nuclear competitiveness can vary significantly from location to location as local conditions are taken into account.

Has the future really changed or is this a momentary blip?

Although it has been more than two months since I last posted; Fukushima continues to dominate the discussion both within and outside of the industry.  So here I am, sitting on the balcony of my beautiful room in Brunei – overlooking the South China Sea – contemplating how this major event in Japan will  affect us going forward.  Predictions are near impossible with change being constant as events continue to unfold.  Of course, of most importance are the ongoing efforts in Japan to get the units under control and to bring the event to a close.  It is the impact on the people of Japan that is always our first concern.


However being in this contemplative mood, I am asking myself; in the medium to long term, is the impact of Fukushima dire or is it demonstrating that nuclear is in fact safe?  Will the future be bright or is it the beginning of the end?  We all have been talking about the events in Germany, although I am not quite sure why.  Germany has had a nuclear phase out policy originating in about 1998 with a clear policy in place from 2001.  Many conveniently forget this.  It was only in 2010 after years of debate that they decided that life extension for their existing units would be a possibility.  So why are we then surprised that following the accident at Fukushima they have reverted to their previous phase out position?  Of course one main difference is that 8 of the oldest plants are now closed with only 9 remaining in service until 2022. 

Given Fukushima as the event that initiated this return to a phase out policy, there has been a very significant amount of discussion around the globe on this issue.  Of course many say it is a demonstration that the industry is dead – but I would say that almost as many others are looking to this decision and asking about its implications; implications for carbon reduction in Germany and for the stability of the European electricity grid in general.  Will this be the beginning of a German led renewable revolution or will it just mean Germany will have to use more fossil power and buy more nuclear power from France?  Already it is clear that carbon emissions in Germany will go up as renewables displace nuclear and more fossil generation is built.   In fact this is one of the biggest issues in a nuclear phase out.  Efforts to reduce carbon may be valiant but it’s a losing proposition when first there is a large non carbon emitting nuclear component to replace instead of replacing fossil fuels.

Other than Germany only Switzerland has taken a very negative view, also committing to a nuclear phase out at the end of life for the current fleet, and dropping plans for new build.  And of course in Japan, there is much discussion on how to move forward with their program as they continue to deal with the aftermath of this ongoing event.  However most other countries including the US, Canada and the UK have reaffirmed their commitment to nuclear power as have China and many other Asian nations.

The potential impact on the world electricity supply is now being contemplated by the IEA as they prepare for their upcoming WEO 2011, showing a new low nuclear scenario directly resulting from the events at Fukushima. In this scenario, the share of nuclear will drop from 14% to about 10% by 2035; a significant drop.  They are suggesting that OECD countries will move to reduce nuclear use (with early retirements and less life extensions) while it continues to increase in China and other Non OECD countries.  I am not sure of the details of this assumption so far since it seems to me that only Germany and Switzerland have made major policy changes – and Germany had no plans for new units and Switzerland had modest plans at best.  So where is the big decline?  I am assuming that it comes from early closure of a number of units.  I guess that we will see the detail when the WEO comes out this November.

Howeveer, the conclusion of this potential scenario is clear.  According to the IEA, there will be higher CO2 emissions, higher energy prices and less overall energy security.  But we will have to wait until the 2012 WEO to see a more detailed analysis of nuclear. This is probably a good idea since we will have more knowledge of the impact of Fukushima by then.

So while we all wrestle in the aftermath of the events of March 11, there is an important healthy discussion starting.  One that really takes a hard look at how we generate electricity and the role of nuclear.  Let’s hope that it is a rational discussion and that we can then demonstrate clearly the role that nuclear power is to play to meet our energy needs going forward.

Tackling market reform to enable nuclear projects – The UK moves forward!

The UK is unique in its approach to the nuclear renaissance.  Once the cradle of the nuclear industry, with some of the world’s oldest plants and research centres, the UK has mostly dismantled its nuclear industry in recent years.  From privatizing British Energy to selling off Westinghouse and dismantling BNFL, it is fair to say that the industry has been through the ringer.  Yet, all of this restructuring has been in a context of encouraging the next round of nuclear new build to replace the current rapidly aging nuclear fleet, and meet both carbon reduction and security of supply targets over the next 40 years.

The thrust of the industry restructuring has been to get government out of the way and encourage private sector leadership for the next round of nuclear new build.  This is totally consistent with UK policies on electricity generation.  The UK was one of the first countries in the world to privatize electricity supply and today has a vigorous and effective private sector electricity generation infrastructure.

The path to new build nuclear has not been a fast one.  Numerous consultations since 2003 have slowly moved the issue forward.  The last one set in motion the Generic Design Assessment process with the regulator and the government’s move to simplify and improve the planning process.  But one thing has been a constant throughout.  Government has stated that it will move out of the way, and that it will be up to the private sector to implement nuclear new build.  Definitely a challenge, but the evidence to date is positive as the success of the site auctions shows.

But now, the most important piece of the puzzle has been launched.  In November of last year, government initiated a consultation on electricity market reform.  This consultation is due to close in early March.  It is this topic that I want to discuss today.

First of all, there is a very important statement in the consultation – it makes it clear that the current market structure is based, and was developed, to suit gas fired generation.  To quote the high capital costs and low operating cost of low-carbon generation are not well suited to the UK market where gas is the marginal plant. This is because gas is generally the price setting plant and can pass through any changes in gas or carbon prices to the electricity price. Therefore electricity and gas prices (and hence revenues and costs) tend to move together. By contrast low-carbon generators are price takers and are more exposed to gas or carbon price volatility.” High capital cost, low operating cost nuclear plants are at a considerable disadvantage in this type of market.

The objectives of government are:   security of supply, decarbonisation and affordability.  Meeting these objectives the four broad principles of cost effectiveness, durability and flexibility, practicality and coherence will be used to judge the effectiveness of different market design options.

The four elements of change under consideration in this consultation are:

–        Carbon price support where the price of carbon is maintained to provide more incentive to low carbon options

–        Feed in tariffs to guarantee revenues to specific generation types to provide the certainty necessary to support the project financing

–        Capacity payments to ensure that adequate capacity is built to ensure security of supply

–        Emissions performance standards which simply prohibits plants from emitting more than a maximum amount of carbon.

It is generally the first two items that we will discuss here as these are the ones that help to support nuclear power plants.  First and simple to understand is the concept of a minimum carbon price.  This provides an institutionalized economic advantage to low carbon generating options such as nuclear power.

Levelised Cost of Generation Technologies (UK Consultation)

The bigger issue for nuclear is the potential use of Feed In Tariffs to provide market support to nuclear.  While often used around the world for renewable projects, this is the first time a market is suggesting that feed in tariffs  be used for large projects such as nuclear plants.  Feed in tariffs are used to support renewables primarily because these plants are not sufficiently economic to compete in the market thus requiring subsidy in the form of tariffs that are usually significantly higher than the market price.  This is not the case for nuclear.  As shown in the figure above, nuclear plants are indeed competitive with the alternatives.  It is their risk profile that is the issue.  So the real question becomes – will a feed in tariff be sufficient to incentivize new build nuclear plants?

To answer this question, we must first discuss the nature of nuclear projects.  They are different than renewable projects in that they not only have relatively high capital costs, but they also have very long project schedules – and this is the difference that matters.  Why?  Because taking 10 to 15 years from planning to in-service offers up a very different risk profile than a wind project that takes two years to build.  This is why it is difficult to enter the market.  The timetable is just too long and the price of electricity so many years in the future is too uncertain.  So the question becomes – can a nuclear generator adequately predict the electricity price he needs to be profitable so far in advance?  And then will a fixed tariff be the right solution?

Another way to look at it is to consider the risk I like to call “completion risk”.  This is the overall  risk of bringing in the plant on time and on budget.  A nuclear project can only proceed when there is a willing party to take on this risk.  So while price certainty helps, it does not do much good if the project is late and over budget.  This means the owner can lose substantial money if the plant is late and/or over budget – or in the extreme to lose the entire investment in the case where the plant is never completed.  This is the best way to gain understanding into this issue.  Having certainty for the price of electricity does no good if electricity is never produced.  This is why a power purchase agreement or a feed in tariff is not sufficient to raise financing on a non recourse project basis.  Someone must take the completion risk.

In the US, this issue is clearly understood.  This is why they have turned to a loan guarantee as the mechanism for project support.  This works as it protects the owner from project failure limiting his risk to the equity in the project (usually around 20% in this case).  This does not eliminate the completion risk but it mitigates it sufficiently to encourage new build projects to proceed.  I am not commenting on whether or not an owner should be protected as this is a matter of policy;  but what is clear is that no company will risk bankruptcy over a single project.

Does this mean that a feed in tariff should not be part of the solution?  Not at all.  It can be an important part of a package that helps to reduce the risk of a large nuclear project.  In this case the UK is recommending a “contract for difference” model where the nuclear plant operates in the market and collects a difference if there is a shortfall from its agreed tariff and reimburses most of the overage if the market price exceeds the agreed tariff.  Now indeed this is a complex model and gives the illusion of operating in the market when in fact, the opposite is true.  What is actually being done is a continuous comparison to the market to illustrate how well the pre-agreed price compares with the market price.

In the case of project delay or overruns, the owner can lose substantial amounts of money, even if the market price of the day has risen significantly compared to what was anticipated as the electricity price will be limited to the pre-agreed tariff.  I would suggest some flexibility to allow the operator to enjoy a larger portion of the upside in this case to recoup his losses.

The other big issue with all of this is that the market soon ceases to be real as more and more of the operating plants operate outside of it as the system is decarbonized.  Do we really want a market and then have, say 80%, of the plant operate at pre-agreed prices ?  In this case, how can the market price really reflect the system?

As you can see there are many issues when devising a way to modify the markets to meet these needs and there is lots of work to be done to get to the right answer.  But what is important here is the clear understanding that current market design is suitable for gas but not necessarily for other sources of generation, primarily those with high capital costs and longer project schedules even though they’re economically competitive.  It is great to see this important discussion on market redesign begin.

Happy New Year 2011!

Looking back at my blog from last January, I can probably start the same way – “Where did the time go?”  2010 has been a very busy year with a huge amount of activity in the nuclear sector around the world.  I am certain that we can expect an even more active year in 2011.

This year the industry movement from west to east has continued.  Last year the success of the Koreans in the export market was the newsmaker – in 2010 it was all about China.  China continued to expand its nuclear program increasing its target for 2020 to about 80 GW from the previous 40 GW.  The first of its updated CPR 1000s came into service at Ling Ao 2 and there are now 13 nuclear units in operation (2 more than this time last year) and 27 units under construction (9 more units than at this time last year).  And there is no sign of this program slowing down!  In fact, it is continuing to accelerate with a target of bringing 10 units a year into operation from 2020 to 2030.

Of more importance, China has now expressed its intentions to start exporting nuclear plants by 2013.  Work is currently under way to upgrade the CPR 1000 design to meet Generation III requirements.  After having visited Daya Bay it is easy to see how this can become a successful export product for China.  There has also been important progress in the first Asian nuclear export.  The UAE announced that there has been progress on their project as the Koreans have now prepared and submitted the license application to the regulator for the first APR 1400 units to be build outside of Korea.

There is no better measure of the growth and breadth of the Asian nuclear programs than looking at progress with nuclear plant costs.  Reports are that the cost of new plants continues to decrease while costs are increasing in the west.  This is a direct result of the continuing strong commitment to new units and the large amount of experience being gained with each project.

Although things are moving more slowing in the west there has been some important progress.  In the US, Southern Company has been granted its loan guarantee for the Vogtle Plant.  On the other hand, issues with guarantee fees have caused Constellation to give up on its merchant plant at Calvert Cliffs.  EDF is now looking to move forward without them.  There has also been little progress in increasing the amount of loan guarantees available to the industry as a whole n the US.  We expect to see good progress this year for the projects in both Georgia and South Carolina.  The US is also putting significant effort into small reactors.  There are a number of designs under development as the industry searches for a way to make nuclear power both more affordable and more attractive to a broader range of utilities.

In the UK, the Generic Design Assessment process has been progressing well.  Similar to the US, the issues going forward with new build projects are related to the sharing of risk.  Late in the year there was a significant breakthrough as the UK government embarked upon a consultation to make changes to the UK electricity market to make it easier for both nuclear and renewable projects to proceed as part of the UK’s carbon reduction policy.    This consultation has a number of approaches to encourage large capital projects, the most important being the possibility of having a feed in tariff that applies to nuclear power plants.  The consultation will close in March and I will likely write about this in more detail sometime soon.

In Canada, the year started with a number of issues related to nuclear refurbishments, radioisotope production and the future of AECL.  However, later in the year, the refurbishment projects turned the corner as the Wolsong Unit in Korea was the first to complete its fuel channel installation and is expected to be back in service later this year.  This has benefited the Point Lepreau refurbishment project where the issues facing the project have now been resolved.  There has also been good progress at Bruce as the Unit 1 & 2 Restart project is nearing completion this year.

Of great importance, the middle of the year saw the NRU reactor go back into operation resuming the much needed production of medical isotopes after an extended outage and major repairs.

But the big issue in Canada remains the privatization of AECL.  Originally expected to be completed within 2010 it is now expected that an announcement is imminent.  Frankly it cannot come too soon for the Canadian industry.

And finally, the role of nuclear in reducing carbon has been accepted internationally.  The IEA, in its 2010 World Energy Outlook (WEO), see an important role for nuclear.  And of more importance, mid year they published the “Nuclear Roadmap” showing the potential role that nuclear can really play in achieving global carbon reduction objectives.  This scenario has nuclear increasing from its current 14% of global production to about 24% by 2050 and has a scenario going all the way to 38%.

Definitely it was another busy year for the nuclear industry.  And it looks like things are only going to continue in 2011.  More growth in Asia is a given.  Breakthroughs in the US and UK are likely and big decisions are coming for the Canadian industry.  And I have not even mentioned the numerous other countries that are now studying and moving forward with plans to consider new nuclear plants.

So Happy New Year to all and lets get ready for an exciting 2011.

Delivering Happiness – about shoes and nuclear power plants!

As I write this I am on my way home from speaking at an event in Hong Kong put on by a think tank called Civic Exchange.  I want to thank Civic Exchange for asking me to participate and congratulate them on their format.  The topic for this, their 14th energy forum, was “Expanding Hong Kong’s Nuclear Power Base“.  Hong Kong has recently issued a paper on climate change and is having a consultation to seek input on its recommendations.  One of these recommendations is to increase the amount of nuclear generation coming from the mainland from the current 23% to 50% of electricity supply by 2020 as part of a plan to reduce Hong Kong’s carbon intensity.

The format of the event was excellent.  More than presentations (I was asked to provide an international perspective on nuclear power), it was a conversation.  After opening remarks by 5 speakers – on Hong Kong’s plan, on China’s nuclear plans, an international perspective, a view from Greenpeace and finally thoughts from the utility – the floor was opened to more than an hour and a half of questions and discussion.  The room was full and the discussion was very lively.  I believe that we all left that room with a little bit more understanding of the issues and I expect that many attendees were able to continue to develop their own point of view.  Overall a success!

This brings me to the book that I read recently called “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, founder and CEO of  Now is essentially an online retailer that started selling shoes over the internet.  After 10 years in business growing to over $1 billion in revenues, the company was sold to Amazon for more than $1 billion dollars.

So what does selling shoes online have to do with nuclear power?  A pretty good question.  But it’s not about shoes – it’s about providing a customer experience that WOW’s the customer (I like that term – the objective is absolutely clear!).  Or as evolved their vision – their business is about “delivering happiness”.  They also created a unique work environment where employees are valued and feel a part of something.  I could go on but I would rather suggest you read the book.

What struck me at this event in Hong Kong is that after years of trying to defend our industry, we seem to have accepted the current position; the position that yes, we may not want nuclear power, but it is what we’ve got and if we want to fight climate change, then it needs to be part of the mix.  We have accepted the “we are the green option of last resort” argument.  It is what finally allowed politicians to stand up and support nuclear power after years of avoiding the issue.  But is that enough?  I don’t think so.  In fact, being the option of last resort just plain sucks.

What we really have with nuclear power is something special, an electricity source that is essentially carbon free, offers a high level of security of supply and uses a fuel that is both abundant and has no real other use or value.  It is also an economic option offering both competitive electricity costs and of even more importance in this volatile world of fossil fuel pricing, it offers long term price stability.

Are their issues?  Yes.  And it is positive events like this one in Hong Kong that enables us to have the conversation that we need to have with our stakeholders.   And yes we need to improve our delivery capability so that projects are routinely on time and on budget.  We are far from perfect.  In fact, I welcomed the talk by Greenpeace as I think we need to be constantly challenged to improve.  We work in an industry with the world’s most rigorous safety standards with regulators always pushing us to improve safety.   This is our safety culture and we should be proud.  We have a good case and we should be out there building the relationships with our customers so that they understand what we all understand, that nuclear power is not the option of last resort but rather is one of the best options available to meet our global needs as an essential part of a low carbon electricity infrastructure.   Nuclear plants are wonderful places to work providing high quality stable jobs and the nuclear industry can be a vibrant exciting place to have a fulfilling career.  The communities where we have plants have clean air and good jobs.

After completing a project for a new client earlier this year, we received a compliment that still resonates with me.  Yes, we were told that they were happy with our report – and that’s great as we strive to provide a high quality service providing unique insights into the nuclear industry.  But of more importance, we were told that they enjoyed the experience of working with us – and that is what I will always remember – as that is what we all need to work towards in our jobs as we play our role in this industry.  So what does this have to do with selling shoes?  I want to achieve the same customer experience as –  a unique customer experience building  strong lasting relationships with high quality services that meet their needs, all with an exceptional overall experience.  In other words, I want them to always be “WOWed”.

We all need to strive to deliver this level of service to our communities to ensure that nuclear power achieves its potential as a key contributor to solving the issue of climate change while providing low cost reliable electricity.

I don’t want nuclear power to be the option of last resort.  Let’s all do our part to ensure that we are wanted for our positive attributes, not just tolerated as the least bad solution.  And that means always working hard to improve.

A bit rambling, but that’s what I thought about when I read this book – we all need to work together to “deliver happiness”.

Yes – we are environmentalists!

Inspiring!  That is the best word I can think of to describe Stewart Brand’s book “Whole Earth Discipline.”  My faith in people has been restored.

To be frank I have heard Stewart Brand speak twice when I went out and bought his most recent book.  His conversion to an ardent supporter of nuclear power was interesting and indeed exciting.  And while he is an excellent speaker, his book is even better.

As an experienced and life long environmentalist, he has the credentials to support his case; and what a case it is.  He argues that being open minded to science and technology is the route to solving environmental issues.  And of most importance, he is willing to listen and learn with time and to modify his beliefs based on this learning.  He even openly criticizes some of the environmental movement as they are stuck in their beliefs and are not willing to take advantage of good information to support their ultimate cause.

He then goes on to blast three key areas of long term environmental criticism as just plain wrong.  Or as he says quite eloquently “Cities are green.  Nuclear energy is green.   Genetic engineering is green.”  His book has a chapter on each and the case is quite compelling.  He then uses part of his book to establish how not to repeat the mistakes we made on these three.  Can you imagine??

With the greens (and he proudly says that it is cool to own a colour) seeming to win on their most recent and perhaps most difficult issue, climate change, Brand is critical.

“The long-evolved green agenda is suddenly outdated – too negative, too tradition-bound, too specialized, too politically one-sided for the scale of the climate problem.  Far from taking a dominant role, environmentalists risk being marginalized more than ever, with many of their deep goals and well-honed strategies irrelevant to the new tasks.  Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens how have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system – climate dynamics.”

There is too much of value in this book to repeat here.  For our interest, those of us in the nuclear industry it is so nice to actually see someone hear what we have been saying for years.  I accept that we have not necessarily been good at delivering the messages, but yes, a thoughtful and experienced environmentalist has listened and heard our arguments.  Of importance are the comments on nuclear safety.  Quoting from Bill McKibben, “Nuclear power is a potential safety threat, if something goes wrong.  Coal-fired power is guaranteed destruction, filling the atmosphere with planet-heating carbon when it operates as it is supposed to.”

And of more importance, he recognizes that nuclear power is actually the safest of all of our forms of energy, with radiation killing no one in the United States, when all the alternatives have; and yet it is the one form of energy we fear the most.

It is easy to go and on but the best recommendation is to read the book.  It has given me faith in the environmental movement when we need it most, and has shown that new thinking is possible.  The planet has hope after all.

So what are you waiting for?  If you want to be inspired, go and read this book now!

Climate change or peak oil – does it really matter?

Has it been that long since my last blog entry?  Been extremely busy this winter and of course, busy is good!  But on the other hand, I have a set of topics piling up that I would like to write about.

Earlier, I blogged when I read Jeff Rubin’s book “How the World is going to get a Whole lot Smaller”.  When I posted the blog, I had good feedback.  I was told that if I read this book, then I should definitely read “The Long Emergency” by Jeff Kunstler.    Having been written in 2005 it is getting a bit dated.  This makes it even more interesting because as you read, reality can be compared to the author’s predictions over the last 5 years.

I really did enjoy the book. The concepts are similar and predate Jeff Rubin.  In summary, Jeff Kunstler is convinced that the age of peak oil is upon us and that the world is going to be a very different place sooner rather than later.  A number of his predictions have come to pass including the housing crisis and the very deep economic recession that we are just coming out of.  Unfortunately the book then goes on to predict doom and gloom- basically the complete collapse of society as we know it.  While he may be right, and I hope not, the trouble with this is that it discourages readers from paying attention to the main message.  And this message is an important one now being put forward by Jeff Rubin as well.

I do believe him when he says that we are at or near peak oil.  I also believe that there is no magic bullet to replace oil and that those who postpone decisions to adapt on the basis that “technology will save us” tend to be somewhat deluded – or in reality are just avoiding the issue.  On the other hand, I don’t believe that the world will come to an end and I do believe that there is technology that will help us delay the large scale effects to give us even more time to adapt.   But remember, adapting means changing behaviour. 

For example, look at one industry.  Publishing. How much carbon is used in the manufacture and distribution of books, magazines and newspapers?  Look at the business model.  Books are published in a big print runs.  They are then transported to book shops where they are to be sold, generally on consignment.  If not sold, the books are returned (more transport) to be destroyed.  While I don’t have the numbers I can assume the carbon costs to be significant.  So why am I talking about this?  Well, along comes technology – an e-reader or now an Apple IPad and what happens?  Millions of books, magazines and newspapers no longer have to be distributed in hard copy, but can now be distributed electronically thus reducing the carbon footprint of this one industry by a huge amount.  Now I don’t want to get into the discussion about the merits or e-readers here – and in fact I do want to blog about it at a later date – but just assume that it does come to pass.  Then assume there are other industries that can also do the same.  You see where I am going.

So now let’s bring climate change into the equation.  I am one who certainly does believe that the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere is having an impact on our climate.  But even if you don’t, then focus on peak oil.  If we take action to curb climate change then we can put in place policies to reduce oil consumption before the natural economics affect us too drastically.  i.e by implementing carbon reduction policies to reduce carbon, we must price it and thus try and reduce use.  Bacuase as we all know from the recent events, nothing is as effective in changing behaviour than changing costs.  This artificially pushes us to the same situation that would come naturally once peak oil has come and oil becomes scarcer.  Of course people like Jeff Kunstler believe we are already too late!

This is why Copenhagen was such a big disappointment,  In a sense it re-enforces  the views in the Long Emergency that our dependence on oil is so great that we just don’t have the political will to go in the right direction.  Very discouraging.

As we saw from this last recession, when demand drops so does the price of oil. In fact what we see is that it doesn’t really take that much of change to impact the price quite dramatically.  With the price risking to almost $150/bbl in early 2008, it dropped to less than $50 by the end of 2008 and has continued to rise modestly since then.  Now at over $80, once again there is fear that high oil prices will impact the economic recovery!  Therefore the only policy is to price carbon and keep the price of oil from dropping by adapting the carbon price as necessary.  Anything else will just lead to short term change and then back to the status quo.

One thing is certain.  Oil is a finite resource. Yes we may find more but yes it will be more expensive to exploit.  At some point we are gong to have to accept that we need to start to shift to a less oil dependent economy. And given oil’s uses outside of energy doesn’t it make sense to use alternatives?  So I will conclude by suggesting that climate change is our warning – start to act now to save the environment or wait until the oil is well past peak and have no plan to save society.

What do you think?

Lower demand and more renewables – is Surplus Base Load Generation here to stay?

Late in November I blogged about a recent phenomenon being experienced in some systems – Surplus Baseload Generation (SBG).  This is being experienced in Ontario, Canada due to falling electricity demand and the increased use of variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

At that time, I started a poll asking about the future of baseload power.  Since then, the IESO in Ontario has published its latest Reliability Outlook.  The numbers are striking.  Demand was down 6.4% in 2009.  The following graph shows that demand is not expected to reach pre-economic crisis peaks even by 2018.

Ontario Demand Forecast

As of result the province continues to experience Surplus Baseload Generation (SBG).  Forecasts of SBG are now made daily.  With the growth of renewable generation SBG is expected to continue into the future.  This will certainly impact any decision for building new nuclear, as nuclear plants are most suited to providing long term stable baseload power and energy. 

The commitment to renewable energy continues to grow.  Wind generation in Ontario rose by more than 60 per cent in 2009 over the previous year, to 2.3 TWh.  Ontario has implemented the Green Energy Act, arguably making it one of the “greenest” jurisdictions in North America.  Just this past week, government announced a $7 Billion deal for 2,500 MW of new renewable generation from a Korean consortium led by Samsung C&T.  The deal includes the implementation of new manufacturing in the province for both wind and solar components.

While the above chart does not show baseload, with 1,000 MW of wind on the system and 11,500 MW of nuclear, this spring, Ontario started to experience SBG on a weekly basis.  This resulted in nuclear unit reductions on 54 days, nuclear shutdowns on five days and water spillage at hydro facilities on 33 days.  In the Reliability Outlook the projection is for 1600 MW of wind by 2013.  With the Samsung deal and other FIT program renewables, we could be approaching 4,000 MW of wind and solar in the coming years while the overall demand is not expected to increase dramatically.  Therefore, the baseload requirements will be further squeezed from the bottom as renewable generation has priority to the system when available.  In other words, both renewables and nuclear are “non flexible” load i.e. not readily dispatchable.  Clearly SBG will be an ongoing issue. 

And now, for the results of my earlier poll.  Although the number of votes was somewhat modest, the trend was clear. 

While the comments suggested that baseload is important, only 10% of respondents thought that renewables will have a small impact on the use of baseload.   The most votes were for “Medium Impact” as it seems to be recognized that renewables are here to stay and that the nature of electric grids are going to be changed forever.

Have we reached peak oil?

I just finished reading Jeff Rubin’s book “Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization“.  Was a good thought provoking read.  In summary, Rubin is stating that the world has reached peak oil production and that ultimately prices will continue to increase post economic crisis and supply will continue to dwindle.  The ultimate effect of this on society is that transportation costs will increase so high that it will no longer be economic to source goods from low labour cost countries like China and others.  The cost of transportation will more than offset the lower production costs.  The result will be a return to building factories much closer to market.  So in the case of North America, jobs will return as making product locally will once again become economic.

In fact there are really two issues as I see it, combined into one.  On the one hand, he notes that transportation costs will become so high that we move jobs closer to home.  On the other hand, the high cost of oil will mean that we won’t be able to sustain our current standard of living so we will have to do with less.

I think that a good case is made with some evidence that we may indeed have achieved peak oil.   The case for the world getting smaller is somewhat more anecdotal in nature.  Rubin also accepts that people are smart and that technology may indeed come to rescue although he does not think it will come fast enough for us to avoid large structural change in our economies.   

There have been numerous reviews of this book so I will not try and do another review.  In my case, I would like to focus on making a few points that came to me as I thought about these issues.  And yes, the book does make you think.

First, while the world may try and get smaller once again as it was in the past, we cannot forget the great strides in communications technology.  So while we may not be able to travel as much, we will continue to be aware of the goings on all around the world.  The internet will continue to bring us together with increasing global collaboration.  Just imagine all of the ways that improved technology can reduce oil use.  And we know from this recession that it doesn’t take a really huge drop in demand for oil prices to fall.  Think of all of the communications technology that can reduce consumption.  For example, how much oil does it take to print and distribute newspapers?  Well, it now looks like the future will have paperless newspapers fed to us on e-readers.  How about magazines?  Books?  If we eliminate these from use (or even reduce their use dramatically as a start) what will the impact be?  No oil to ship the paper to the factory, no printing requiring energy, no packaging and most of all, no distribution.  And this is only one example.  How about business travel?  Of course, it will never go to zero but with improved video conferencing the need to travel by plane to far away places or even by car somewhere closer is being reduced.  Look at the reductions in business travel already apparent in this recession.  In these cases, it means that we will hopefully be able to use oil to transport only what needs to be transported as we get more efficient and reduce overall transportation.

He discusses climate change as well.  This is also an important point.  The global concern about carbon emissions is leading us to price carbon, thus increasing the cost of oil from its normal economic position.  The goal is to use policy to change behaviour and find ways to move off oil to more carbon friendly forms of energy.  This means that governments are working to try and encourage fuel switching BEFORE the oil actually runs out due to concerns about its current use – not due to concerns about its scarcity.  This should have a positive impact as policies continue to encourage demand reduction in advance of a global supply catastrophe.

Next, if he is right and factories once again move closer to home, yes, blue collar jobs long lost to far away places may indeed come back home to North America.   But the current trend of white collar jobs moving off shore will not be reversed.  It is ironic that the man on the factory floor may once again have a good job while the engineer designing the process may more often be in places with low cost professional labour.  Engineering, accounting and other professions in the service sector that produce mostly paper will not see their jobs return as the internet will assure that quality work can be done literally anywhere around the world.  So does this mean that in the next phase of globalization it is the higher paying jobs that will be moved away to lower cost locations while the low paying jobs return home? 

Was an enjoyable read.  I am interested in other’s thoughts on this book. Let me know what you think.