Nuclear Power Economics

At the World Nuclear Fuel Conference (WNFC) conference in Toronto this month, I will be presenting a paper “Nuclear Power Economics and Project Structuring – 2017 Edition” to introduce the most recent version of this World Nuclear Association (WNA) report.  For full disclosure, I am the chair of the WNA Economics Working Group and this is the group responsible for the report’s preparation.

The report sets out to highlight that new nuclear build is justified in many countries on the strength of today’s economic criteria, to identify the key risks associated with a nuclear power project and how these may be managed to support a business case for nuclear investment and, of major importance, to promote a better understanding of these complex topics and encourage subsequent wider discussion.

When it comes to the conclusion, little has changed since the first report was issued back in 2005.  At that time, it concluded “In most industrialized countries today new nuclear power plants offer the most economical way to generate base-load electricity – even without consideration of the geopolitical and environmental advantages that nuclear energy confers.”  The 2017 version comes to the same conclusion stating, “Nuclear power is an economic source of electricity generation, combining the advantages of security, reliability, virtually zero greenhouse gas emissions and cost competitiveness.

Of course, while some will say this is no surprise given the report is prepared by the nuclear industry; it must also be noted that it is not based on any industry funded research – but rather it is based on high-quality mostly-government reports on the economics of various energy options such as the “Projected Costs of Electricity” issued by the IEA and the NEA.

While the conclusions may not have changed in the last decade, the nuclear world certainly has. Who would have guessed back in 2005 that the Koreans would have won a bid to build the first nuclear power plants in the UAE and that the first of these units would now be nearing completion while the first EPR in Finland continues to be delayed?  There was the accident at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, major financial issues at the traditional large nuclear power companies such as Areva of France and Westinghouse of the USA; all while the companies from Russia, China and Korea have grown both domestically and with exports.  Projects in the East are being built to cost and schedule with their outcomes being predictable due to the large programs underway in places like China and Korea using largely standardized designs.  On the other hand, first of a kind projects in Europe and the USA are experiencing significant challenges.  With new build being a function of capital cost and schedule, clearly poor construction performance will have an impact on the economics. The global industry is now also contemplating a new generation of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) intended to reduce both project cost and risk.

And what about the competition?  There has been huge global growth in renewables strongly supported with government subsidies and a dramatic drop in the price of gas in North America.  The impacts of these subsidised intermittent renewables and ‘un-carbon costed’ gas have depressed wholesale prices in deregulated electricity markets creating a number of issues in maintaining existing large scale nuclear baseload generation (as well as other baseload options).  Policymakers are finally seeing the negative impact of these issues and are just starting to address these fundamental market design problems.

Yet in spite of all of these massive changes in the market, the reality remains that:

  • Existing nuclear plants are operating very efficiently and unit operating costs are low relative to alternative generating technologies in most markets
  • The global growth in demand for electricity creates opportunity for continued nuclear growth even when ignoring environmental considerations
  • Nuclear energy competitiveness depends mainly on the capital required to build the plant. At discount rates of 5-8% nuclear is generally competitive with other generating technologies

While there are a host of issues affecting the future of nuclear power that are far from easy to address, the fundamentals remain.  Overall, new nuclear plants can generate electricity at predictable, low and stable costs for 60 years of operating life and in all likelihood even longer in the future. Investment in nuclear should therefore be an attractive option for countries which require significant baseload amounts of low cost power over the long term.

Six years later – learning the right lessons from Fukushima

It’s hard to believe that six years have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan that resulted in the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Over the past six years there have been many arguments about the merits of actions taken both during and following the accident and on the lessons learned to move forward.

Three years ago, we wrote about the status focusing on the plight of the people of Fukushima.  Today we want to revisit this theme as, in the end, it is all about the people.  It is not a question of whether or not evacuation was the right thing to do or how much the decommissioning of the Fukushima units will cost.  The objective of nuclear safety is to protect people.  So, if we want to evaluate how we are doing, we need to look at the plight of the people of Fukushima, ensure they have a path back to a normal life and learn how to avoid putting people through the same amount of trauma in the future.

Let’s start with what we know.  We now know that no one will die from radiation released as the doses were very low.  In fact, actual monitoring of people has shown even lower doses than were predicted when it was first said there would be no radiation health impacts.  We now know how to improve nuclear plant designs to reduce the risk of future similar accidents and ensure that even if one should happen, the risk of significant releases is also reduced.  We now know that taking decisions on evacuations have large impacts on populations that may be worse than leaving them in place.  We also know that there was insufficient regulation and guidelines on recovery from accidents and on when evacuated areas are once again safe to allow people to go home.

These are all important.  And these will all help to make nuclear power safer in the future as we must always learn from an industrial accident of any type how to reduce future risk.

But what is really important is bringing this event to an end – and that means having all those impacted achieve some level of normalcy to their lives and, of more importance, to have hope for the future.    As of the end of March many more areas are going to be declared safe for repopulation, an important milestone.  Hopefully this will help as people get to go home.  But many will not.  People are still afraid.  Recent surveys suggest that 62.3% of people do not want to go home.  This fear comes from a lack of trust in government (and all authorities).  After being told an accident such as this one would never happen; having been told to evacuate and having little understanding of when they can return home and what it means to have a safe level of radiation – it is easy to see how the population would lose trust in its leaders.   Or in other words “you told me this was safe and it wasn’t – why should I believe you when you tell me that its safe now?”  This is a very difficult question to answer.

To make things worse, there is also a severe cultural issue in Japan where people who lived through the accident have a stigma that results in discrimination from others and brings shame to those impacted.  “According to a 2017 survey by Akira Imai, a professor at Fukushima University, and the Asahi Shimbun, 62 percent of the 348 Fukushima evacuees interviewed have experienced or witnessed bullying and discrimination for having been exposed.”  They live each day with severe anxiety –  over information, fear of discrimination, and the fear of the unknown when it comes to radiation.  This is not new.  Japanese people who lived through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have suffered the same where about 80 percent of atomic bomb survivors chose to hide their status as survivors — from anyone, including spouses — for fear of being discriminated against.  There is even a name for this; these survivors are known as the hibakusha.

And then there is compensation –  there is variation between different types of evacuees, whether they were forcibly or voluntarily evacuated – and then let’s not forget those that have left their homes, not related to the nuclear accident but because their homes were destroyed by the tsunami.  The lives of these people are rarely discussed as the nuclear story continues to dominate the news.

So, what are the lessons we need to learn?  Again, as we have said before, from the industry point of view we need to change the narrative on nuclear accidents.  As long as people believe that the consequence of an accident is world ending, the probability doesn’t matter.  (I will discuss the challenges of how people relate to probabilities in a future post).  But we have learned that this result is not true.  In reality, there needs to be a new paradigm where the message is as follows:

  • The risk of a nuclear accident is very low and is always getting even lower
  • In the event of an accident the risk of releasing radiation to the environment is also very low; and
  • Even in the unlikely event that radiation is released, the public’s health and safety can be protected.

But this is not enough.  Since we know that the most significant impact of an accident is psychological trauma, then this needs to be addressed.  First and foremost, that means rebuilding trust in authorities, a daunting task.  People need to know that when authorities say to evacuate, then it is necessary; that when they say it is safe to come home, that it is safe; and most of all, that when they say your health and your children’s health is not at risk, that you can believe them.  This is a very tall order and will take a long time.

To build this trust also requires ensuring that accidents like this one have an ending.  People cannot live with uncertainty for years and years.  Following the Kobe earthquake in the 1990s, most people were back home within 5 years.  There needs to be clear guidelines on when to evacuate and when to repopulate.  There also needs to be clear guidelines on how long is too long so that if it is not practical to repopulate within a specified period of time then people are resettled.

And finally, as we have said before, we need new research on the impact to people in affected areas following nuclear accidents so we can better understand how to reduce their fear and make them comfortable they can be protected and indeed, have a healthy happy future. This means much more than emergency planning to get people out of harm’s way if needed when an accident happens.  It also means helping impacted people until they can resume their normal lives. This will lead to better decisions following events with an emphasis on protecting people.

The people of Japan are very resilient.  They have suffered through terrible tragedies both man induced and natural.  Although many thought it would become a wasteland, today Hiroshima is a vibrant city after being targeted by an atomic bomb, as is Kobe following a devastating earthquake.  I am certain that the cities surrounding Fukushima will achieve the same.  But what is critical is that we find ways to reduce the stress and provide confidence in the future.  That is the challenge we face.  And this takes leadership, both in government and in industry to not react radically, gain the population’s trust and to show that in spite of such events, life continues and there remains hope for the future.

In an era where facts no longer matter, consequences still do

Over the last few years, we have written extensively about the strength of peoples’ beliefs and how difficult it is to change them.  In spite of this, I thought we were making progress with a push to more evidence-based decision making.  For something as polarizing as nuclear power, facts-based decision making is critical to increasing support.  (I understand the paradigm of fear of radiation is more emotional than fact based and I agree that we need to appeal to emotions to create the change we need – but let’s leave that to a future discussion.  In any case it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the facts on your side.)

With the populist surge in 2016 we have seen an accompanying rise in complete disregard for facts; all the way to the propagation of absolute lies (or “alternative facts”) to support peoples’ beliefs.  I don’t want to get into a political discussion nor take sides on right versus left.  What I do want to do in today’s post is to discuss something more fundamental – i.e. that although we are free to believe what we want – that beliefs have consequences – and that consequences matter.

So, let’s look at what happens when countries believe they can eliminate nuclear power from the mix and replace it with more wind and solar power.  Of course, I am talking about Germany.  Reducing carbon emissions is a reasonable goal as evidence (alternative facts notwithstanding) shows that climate change is impacting our environment and has long-term implications for our entire society.  On the other hand, removing a low-cost low-carbon source of energy like nuclear power because of safety concerns is based on a strong element of fear rather than evidence.  In fact, Germany’s nuclear plants are likely some of the safest in the world and there is no reason to suspect they will result in a catastrophic accident that means the end of Germany as we know it – yet that is what people fear.

So, what happens in a case like this?  The results are in.  Fossil fuel use is increasing in Germany, carbon emissions are going up and so is the cost of energy.  The German people are paying more money for an outcome that does more damage to the environment and hence, their health.  Frankly, it’s a high price to pay for the piece of mind that comes from eliminating the perceived risk of nuclear.  Or in other words, the extreme fear of nuclear is driving policy more than concern for either energy cost or the environment.

As shown above, closure of another nuclear plant in 2015 resulted in increased emissions in 2016 (the first full year it was out of service) even though there was a substantial substitution of gas to replace coal.

And after adding 10 percent more wind turbine capacity and 2.5 percent more solar panel capacity between 2015 and 2016, less than one percent more electricity from wind and one percent less electricity from solar was generated in 2016.  So, not only did new solar and wind not make up for the lost nuclear, the percentage of time during 2016 that solar and wind produced electricity declined dramatically.   And why was this the case?  Very simply because Germany had significantly less sunshine and wind in 2016 than 2015.

This analysis was done by Environmental Progress and shows that the intermittency of these renewable sources of electricity both throughout the day and from year to year mean that even huge increases in capacity of these forms of generation will continue to require fossil backup in the absence of nuclear power making 100% renewables an unachievable goal.  Another study shows that to achieve a 100% renewable system in Germany would require a back-up system capable of providing power at a level of 89% of peak load to address the intermittency.

Comparing Germany to France, France has more than double the share of low carbon energy sources and Germany has more than twice the cost of energy as France.

So, trying to decarbonize by also removing nuclear from the mix at the same time is simply too high a mountain to climb.  The following shows that German emissions were 43% higher in 2016 without the nuclear plants that have been already shut down.  Keep in mind that they still do have operating nuclear and with more plants to shut down, the future trend is not likely to change.

It’s not just about Germany.  As Japan struggles to get its nuclear plants back on line after the 2011 Fukushima accident, its use of coal has skyrocketed.  In 2015 its use of fossil fuels for electricity generation was 82% compared to 62% in 2010 when the nuclear plants were in operation.  And now Japan plans to build 45 new coal plants (20 GW) over the next decade to meet its energy needs.

Finally, we can also look at South Australia, a nuclear free zone.  Recent blackouts due in part to lower wind availability and the inability of thermal plants to make up the shortfall are also leading to questions on ‘how much renewables is too much’.

So, we can all continue to hold our beliefs very dearly and only listen to those that support them, while vilifying those that do not.  However, please keep in mind that in a world where the farcical becomes reality, results still matter.  And for now, the results are clear, taking nuclear power out of the mix in Germany is not achieving its political-planners’ goals.  Yet these results are also not likely to change any German minds when it comes to nuclear power.  But hey, why worry about the outcome when you know you are right or as said by comedian Chico Marx in the famous Marx brothers movie Duck Soup “Who you gonna believe – me or your own eyes?”?

2016 was a challenging year for nuclear power – or was It?

There is no shortage of people happy to see 2016 come to an end.  It has been an extraordinary year characterized by strong popular revolt to the status quo resulting in unexpected government changes in places like Britain and Italy and a surprising result in the US election.

For those of us in the energy industry it has also been a challenging year.  Oil prices have remained low depressing economies supported by oil.  North American gas prices seem to have no bottom and these historic lows have led to dysfunction in electricity markets.  This coupled with highly subsidized prices for renewables has resulted in tremendous economic pressure on American nuclear plants with a number of them closed and more slated for early closure.  The most recent was just this month as Entergy announced that Pilgrim would be closed early in 2018.

In other countries, Japan continues to struggle with bringing back its nuclear fleet in a timely manner; South Africa seems to have postponed the bulk of its nuclear plan; and Vietnam cancelled their nuclear projects outright.

What makes these changes of more concern is that on the surface they are said to be a result of challenging nuclear economics rather than any specific anti-nuclear attitude.

But all this negative pressure also helped to put the need for nuclear in perspective.  More and more countries have accepted that meeting climate goals will require continued use of nuclear power.  Its 24/7 reliable low carbon generation can be the back bone for a healthy economic low carbon world.  As shown by the IEA in their World Energy Outlook 2016 (WEO) in the figure below, there is strong growth expected for nuclear in the New Policy Scenario (base case) and that the number of nuclear plants will have to more than double for their 450 (low carbon) scenario.

Source: World Energy Outlook 2016

While the press has been consumed with the challenges, there has been a string of good news for the sector this year.  In Britain, there was a final commitment to the Hinkley Point C project and in Switzerland the early closure for their nuclear plants was strongly rejected in a referendum.  In the United States, while the focus was on the plants that have closed and that may be closing both Illinois and New York states have taken government action to keep their plants open recognizing their essential contribution to both the local economies and to their carbon emissions targets.  Also in the US, Watts Bar 2 came into service as the country’s first new nuclear plant in more than two decades.  And so far, it looks like the incoming administration, while not necessarily on the side of combating climate change, will be supportive of nuclear energy going forward.

Here we are; another year has come to an end and once again it has been a tumultuous year for nuclear.  But overall, I believe it has been positive and we are well placed for 2017.  There is a broad recognition of the importance of nuclear to meet climate change targets and there is a better understanding of the problems with market structures in supporting low carbon economic generation that is needed.  All of this without even mentioning China which continues with its strong nuclear expansion.

One thing is clear.  The world needs more nuclear if we are to have a reliable secure low carbon generating system.   With the IEA forecasting a doubling of plants in the next 25 years, we had better get on with it…….

Thank you for continuing to read this blog – wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2017.

Want to minimize radiation from power generation – build more nuclear

Yes, you read that right.  For years, there have been efforts to demonstrate that people who live near nuclear plants or work at nuclear plants are getting sick from all that darn radiation they are receiving.  Over the years these stories have been debunked as study after study has shown that there is no impact from radiation from living near or working at a nuclear plant.

But now a study has been done that shows that of most of the options to generate electricity, nuclear actually releases the least amount of radiation.  This is documented in UNSCEAR’s, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, on its study to consider the amount of radiation released from the life cycle of different types of electricity generation.

The Committee conducted the comparative study by investigating sources of exposure related to radiation discharges from electricity-generating technologies based on nuclear power; the combustion of coal, natural gas, oil and biofuels; and geothermal, wind and solar power. The results may surprise some, especially those that strongly believe that nuclear pollutes the earth with radiation, coal with a range of air pollutants and carbon, and that solar and wind are environmentally wonderful.


Coal generation resulted in the highest collective doses to the public, both in total and per unit energy.  Coal radiation emissions result from coal mining, combustion of coal at power plants and coal ash deposits.  The study also considered occupational doses to workers.  Here is the biggest surprise.  As stated “With regard to the construction phase of the electricity-generating technologies, by far the largest collective dose to workers per unit of electricity generated was found in the solar power cycle, followed by the wind power cycle. The reason for this is that these technologies require large amounts of rare earth metals, and the mining of low-grade ore exposes workers to natural radionuclides during mining.”  It is important to note that in all cases these levels of exposure are relatively low and have little impact to public health.

This study only addresses normal discharges during the lifecycle of the station.  Possible larger releases as a result of nuclear accidents are not considered and we recognize that many will argue it is accidents and their consequences that create the largest fear of nuclear power.

So why talk about this?  The reality is that this information is not likely to change even one single mind on whether someone supports nuclear power or fears it.  We live in a world where facts no longer matter – the only truth is the one that any one person believes.  Well, we believe that scientific study remains the best way forward to establish truth and that studies such as these are part of the path forward.  No one electricity generation technology is perfect.  Coal is cost effective and technically strong, but is also a strong emitter of a range of pollutants (including radiation); renewables such as solar and wind are clean but their resource is intermittent and they have issues with both their front end (mining of rare earths) and disposal at the end of their life cycle.

Nuclear power continues to have a good story to tell, with respect to its economics, reliability, environmental attributes and the many good jobs it creates for local economies.  Concerns about nuclear relate mostly to one major issue – fear of radiation.  And fear is a strong emotion that is not easily changed.  But at least what we have here is another study to show that radiation emissions from normal operations of the nuclear fuel cycle is not something to fear – and in fact if you really want to minimize the collective dose to the public, nuclear power remains the option of choice.

Young people with passion – that is the future of nuclear power

We talk a lot about the merits of nuclear power in this blog.  From economics and reliability to environment, we focus on why nuclear is now and should be an essential part of our future energy mix.  But how do we get there?  Again, we often talk about the challenges associated with public acceptance and how we can better position nuclear as the energy solution we all know it is.

But today we want to focus on something different.  People.  We have been privileged to work in this industry for more than 35 years.  Often it’s hard to believe that this much time has passed since we were so excited to start our first jobs as a young engineers working on nuclear safety.  Over the years there have been many challenges as the industry slowed, in part due to the accident at Chernobyl, in part due to the slowdown in energy demand growth in many industrialized countries, to the challenges of building capital intensive large projects into deregulated markets.  But one thing has not changed; our passion for the industry – our passion for making the world a better place with clean reliable economic nuclear power.  And we are not alone.

At a recent industry event, I spoke to many of our colleagues, many of whom have come out of retirement again and again simply because their passion for nuclear power as a solution to meeting our ever growing energy needs is simply impossible to extinguish.  Some are well into their 70s and their enthusiasm is as strong as when they were in their 30s.

With nuclear power growing once again, it is time to ensure its continuity by instilling this passion into a new generation of young people.  It is the fuel that will ensure the industry continues to be innovative and reaches its full potential going forward.  That being said it is important to focus on what is important to this new generation of engineers and scientists; what will keep them enthused and committed.  It is hard to imagine millennials thinking of utilities or large industrial companies as the growth companies of the future.  Rather they think of companies like Google, Facebook and Uber when it comes to large innovative exciting companies – or they believe in being entrepreneurs and starting their own tech start-up.   This ad campaign by GE (one example below) is a brilliant one as it tries to show young people that it can indeed be exciting to be in this large industrial company – that not everyone has to be coding and developing the next app that puts hats on cats – but that to truly change the world, it is the future of things like transportation and energy that really matters.

I love it (There are a series of these ads, just go to YouTube and you can see more).

In the nuclear industry we have the problem of a gap in age.  There are many people in their 50s through to retirement age that have been in the industry for decades, and then there is a new cohort of young people who have joined the industry in the last 10 years or less.  This new young cohort has different work expectations than the older group.  They expect to be able to find a place and make a meaningful contribution in a relatively short time.  They are impatient and expect to change jobs many times in their career.  They do not expect to join one company and stay there until they retire.

Yet we are an industry that believes that it takes years to learn and become an expert.  We need people with 10 years plus experience and we need experts who continue to grow as they gain the experience needed to make a difference.

Therefore, as industry leaders we need to understand and address the desires and concerns of those just starting out.  We need to remember that 30 years ago when we were younger we quickly developed into experts as new techniques were established and we did not have the benefit of people like us to show us the ropes.  We were at the leading edge and we loved working in this exciting young industry.  We learned on the job. We were excited with every opportunity and put our best into developing a product that we strongly believed in.  These are the conditions we need to replicate for this next generation.  We need to ensure they are actively engaged, play a strong role in new projects and in innovating as the industry moves forward.  We need to provide them with the opportunities they crave to develop their passion for this exciting industry.  Competition for these people will be fierce and we need to show that the nuclear industry is where they can truly make a difference in the world.

Sometimes as conservative engineers, or as some of the anti-nuclear activists may state – that it is not fair to leave problems for future generations to solve; we need to push back.  As one quite learned colleague once said, why solve every issue – we need to leave some things for the bright young people following us to solve – because they will be smarter than we are and bring new thinking to old issues.

While many think the future of nuclear power depends on public acceptance, or solving the waste issue, or improving nuclear safety; it actually depends on building a passionate next generation of young people to take it in directions that none of us has even thought of yet.  Life is about passion – so let’s all work to bring out the passion in a new generation of nuclear people.  The future is open to us – but only if we can attract the best and brightest people needed to make it happen.

If you are under 40 and have read this post – please comment explaining why you are passionate about working in the nuclear industry.

UK commits to nuclear new build – a critical decision for the future of nuclear

More than a decade since then Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a review into UK energy policy, a positive decision has been taken to approve the construction of the first new nuclear station in the UK in a generation, Hinkley Point C.

Finally, after more twists and turns than a good British mystery novel, including: EDF’s purchase of British Energy, the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan, agreement to an innovative Contract for Difference (CFD) type of contract to support the project, the introduction of a significant role for the Chinese, and most recently the Brexit vote; the UK decision shows that Europe remains a nuclear continent.


The project is not without its opponents; some of whom are supportive of nuclear new build in the UK, but do not support this particular project.  Concerns range from the cost of energy to the inclusion of the Chinese.  But following extensive review and assessment, the decision has been taken, and its importance goes well beyond just approving a single new nuclear project in Britain.

Following the Fukushima accident in Japan, a number of European countries reconsidered their commitment to nuclear power, the most significant being Germany, who immediately shut down a number of their nuclear units and made a clear plan to retire the remainder.  Many said nuclear in Europe, where there are the most nuclear units in the world, is a technology of the past.  Renewables are the future.  Even the French government, with the world’s largest nuclear fleet in terms of share of electricity generated, said it would cut back on its use.

Through it all, the UK maintained its strong commitment to new nuclear.  Its existing fleet is aging and with domestic gas waning and energy imports on the rise, it recognized that new nuclear is the best, and likely only way, to both achieve energy security and meet its carbon reduction goals.

While all the talk has been about delays in securing approvals for its new nuclear ambitions, EDF Energy, the operator of the current UK fleet, has been quietly going about its business and making game-changing improvements in its operations.  On September 16, Heysham II was taken off line after 940 days of continuous operations, a new world record beating the record held by Pickering Unit 7 in Canada (894 days) for more than 20 years.  [As we all think about light water reactors (PWRs and BWRs) as the global standard, we often forget that these other reactor types, AGR in the case of Heysham and CANDU in the case of Pickering, have their own specific advantages.] In addition, EDF has been able to extend the lives of the AGR fleet by an average of 8 years.  This shows the strong capability of EDF Energy as an operating entity and bodes well for the next step; new build.

So why is the approval of Hinkley Point C so important to the nuclear industry?  First of all, it is the first new build nuclear project in the UK since Sizewell B came into service in 1995 and, even more importantly, is expected to be the start of a major ongoing new nuclear program.  It is the base to rebuild the UK nuclear supply chain, once a world leader, and support the broader European nuclear supply chain.  It is the first new unit to be built supported by a CFD type agreement and as stated by Duncan Hawthorne, CEO of Horizon Nuclear, likely the next to build in the UK, it “blazes the trail” for those that follow.  The UK is taking an interesting approach to new nuclear going forward as there are multiple companies who are planning to build a multitude of designs (EDF Energy with the EPR, Horizon with the ABWR, NuGen with the AP1000 and CGN with its HPR1000).  And finally, after years of cooperation in China, it entrenches EDFs global partnership with CGN and establishes China as a reputable exporter of nuclear power.

But most of all, it is further evidence that Europe remains a nuclear continent.  While most articles on nuclear tend to say nuclear is languishing everywhere except for its saving grace –  China – Europe is moving forward.  Sweden is taking real steps to keep its fleet operating, France and Finland have new build underway albeit while experiencing First of a Kind (FOAK) issues, Finland now has a second new unit going ahead, Hungary is waiting for an imminent decision from Europe on state aid and is ready to start its a new station at Paks, with other countries continuing to plan for new nuclear plants.  And now the UK starts a new program – one that will ultimately include a number of vendors and countries.

Of course the real challenge is just beginning – that is for EDF Energy to demonstrate that it can build Hinkley Point C on time and on budget – and as the 5th and 6th EPR units to be built, there is certainly a very good chance that they will.

Nuclear, a technology of the past in Europe – I don’t think so – in Europe nuclear power is a technology of the future.

Fighting for the environment – keep nuclear in the mix

Earlier this month I enjoyed a week of vacation sitting on the beach in front of a beautiful camp (or cottage, cabin or country house, depending on where you are from) staring at a stunning view of the north shore of Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh water lake.  This is pretty far north (at the 49th parallel), and this year the summer has been very hot.  Once again, July has been the hottest month ever recorded.


It’s times like this of quiet reflection that the issue of environment comes to the forefront.  Contrast this idyllic view to that of some of the world’s cities where pollution is rampant and health is impacted every day.  This is the short term need – make the air breathable for all those that are having their health impacted negatively by pollution primarily coming from burning coal to generate electricity and from burning fossil fuels in cars each and every day.  And then there is the issue of climate change.  Harder for many to understand as the consequences are not as easy to see in the short term; but clearly the environmental issue of our time.

Let me start by saying that I am not one of those people that believe we should directly tie the future of nuclear power to climate change but rather that the case for nuclear needs to be made on its merits – reliability, economics, sustainability and yes, its environmental attributes.  In fact, today environmental attributes of any generation technology should be the price of entry – low carbon and low polluting technologies are the ones that should make the list to be considered for deployment.   However once on the list it is the other attributes that need to be considered when planning and implementing a robust electricity supply system.

Looking at this beautiful view, I find it hard to understand how so many are trying to disadvantage the environment by excluding nuclear power from the list of technologies that are environmentally friendly.  And not just for new generation, but many are fighting to close existing plants that have been providing clean, economic and reliable electricity to the grid for decades.  Examples abound.

In California, a decision was recently taken to shut down Diablo Canyon in 2025 rather than extend its life and replace it with renewables and demand management.  This decision has recently been severely criticized by Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists who has asked the Governor for a debate on the issue stating “Retirement of the plant will make a mockery of California’s decarbonization efforts. Diablo Canyon’s yearly output of 17,600 gigawatt-hours supplies 9 percent of California’s total in-state electricity generation and 21 percent of its low-carbon generation. If Diablo closes it will be replaced mainly by natural gas, and California’s carbon dioxide emissions will rise…” [Read the entire text of the letter here]

In New York state there has been an important victory as nuclear has been included in the clean energy standard as legislators have acknowledged the important role that nuclear plays in reducing carbon emissions; and in fact accepts that meeting carbon objectives is simply impossible without nuclear.   However, this is just a first step. It protects existing nuclear but also maintains the future target of 50% renewables, making nuclear a bridge to the future.  Well if existing nuclear is good, then so should new nuclear – but that fight is for another day.

Of course the battle to include nuclear as a low carbon energy option is not uniquely a US issue.  A new study * by the University of Sussex and the Vienna School of International Studies suggests that “a strong national commitment to nuclear energy goes hand in hand with weak performance on climate change targets”.  While the authors do note that “it’s difficult to show a causal link”, this does not stop them from suggesting it is likely there.   It is easy to say that Germany has done a good job and reduced its carbon emissions by 14% since 2005.  What is not said is that Germany’s carbon reduction efforts have really struggled since it closed a number of nuclear plants in 2011 after the Fukushima accident and has yet to get back on track; which was likely a key factor in Sweden where the Greens have accepted the need for continued nuclear operation to meet its climate goal.

Here in my home jurisdiction of Ontario Canada, we had the largest carbon reduction in all of North America as coal was removed from the generation mix in 2014.  This was not done by replacing coal with renewables although renewable generation has increased, but was made possible by refurbishing and returning nuclear units into service.

I have written extensively about peoples’ belief systems over the years and this is what is standing between nuclear and success.  Ask anyone in the street about clean electricity and you will hear that renewables, primarily wind and solar, are what is needed to transform our energy systems.  Ask about nuclear and the response is much more likely to be mixed.

It is great news that many environmentalists are now seeing the necessity of nuclear in the mix.  As concluded by James Hansen in his letter” It would be a tragedy if we were to allow irrational fear to harm the climate and endanger the future of our children and grandchildren.”  So if we are to avoid a tragedy, we in the nuclear industry have a lot of work to change the narrative and continue to increase public support.  The agreement in New York is a good beginning but the hard work has only just begun.

* The study referenced above was retracted by the authors on November 25, 2016 as they admitted mistakes in the analysis.  The link to the retraction on Retraction Watch is here.

It is broken markets, not uneconomic plants that are putting nuclear plants at risk

A huge milestone has been achieved in the United States as Watts Bar Unit 2 produced its first electricity; becoming the first new nuclear plant in the US to start up in 20 years since Watts Bar Unit 1 came into service in 1996.  Unfortunately, this good news was overshadowed by the announcement by Exelon that its Quad Cities and Clinton power stations in Illinois would close.  This decision was the most recent but not the first, with headlines such as “Nuclear plants need boost to stay open, industry warns” or” Nuclear power plants warn of closure crisis” pointing to more nuclear plants that are at risk of premature closure because they are no longer economic in the competitive markets in which they operate.


Watts Bar – America’s newest nuclear plant

There are many explanations as to the cause of this “crisis”.  Gas prices are currently very low, renewables are subsidized and the costs of some of the smaller oldest single unit nuclear plants in the country have been rising as they age.  While all of these points are true, they are not in and of themselves, the direct cause of the problem.  They are symptoms of deep structural issues in those parts of the country where electricity is bought and sold in so called open or deregulated markets.(Note: Watts Bar, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, is in a regulated market.)

This was the topic of a recent DOE summit on how to “save” the nuclear fleet (“Summit on Improving the Economics of America’s Nuclear Power Plants) to address the crisis and take steps to avoid the unnecessary closing of a significant number of plants.  So here we are and once again, we fall into the trap of incorrectly defining the problem as costly inefficient nuclear plants. After all the US summit is on how to improve the economics of nuclear plants, not how to fix poorly structured markets – the real problem.  (Note: In Europe there are similar issues driven by a high level of subsidized renewables rather than low gas prices.  But the need to find a solution is the same.  A European Commission official assured delegates at a recent nuclear financing conference held in Paris that the design of European wholesale electricity markets and the emissions trading system (EU ETS) will be improved to help – and no longer hinder – nuclear energy as a low-carbon source of electricity.)

In the guise of providing the lowest cost to ratepayers, most markets are completely focused on the short term.  There is little consideration of risk built into the pricing mechanisms, only what is the lowest cost to generate electricity right now.  This means that there is no value attributed to any of the other important operating attributes required for a reliable and secure electricity supply system such as fuel availability, maneuverability, flexibility and price volatility.  On top of this, things like government environmental policies and subsidies further distort the markets to ensure that mandated renewables have a role in the system.  (Of course nuclear has not benefited from such support even though it is a low carbon option.)

This may have all worked fine 25 years ago when markets were opened with the objective of creating efficiencies in the existing operating fleet –a time when many jurisdictions were in oversupply.  But when it comes to adding capacity or making other substantive changes to the system, electricity markets are not nimble.  While there may be a desire to respond to price signals in the short term, building new plant takes time.  And one thing is for sure, no one will build new plant of any kind without some confidence that they will generate sufficient revenue to operate for their projected lives and earn a return on their investment.  Or as stated in the OECD report Project Costs of Electricity, “The structure of the electricity generation mix, as well as the electricity demand pattern, is quite inelastic in the short term: existing power plants have long lifetimes and building new capacity and transmission infrastructure may require a considerable lead time as well as significant upfront investments. In other terms, electricity systems are locked in with their existing generation mix and infrastructure, and cannot quickly adapt them to changing market conditions.”

It is also important to understand that not all market participants are equal.  In most markets gas is the price maker, not a price taker.  So when gas prices are high, everybody else in the market makes money and when gas prices are low, everybody struggles.  And yes, today gas prices are very very low.  Yet gas operators are relatively indifferent as they are the risk free players in the market.  Even in this enviable position, gas generators did not have sufficient incentive to build new plant, so many markets have responded with the development of capacity markets.  These capacity payments then compensate gas plants for sitting idle – effectively removing the risk to gas generators of building new plants.

So you may ask, what’s the problem with that as long as we have low energy prices?

If open markets are so efficient then we should expect that prices in these areas should be lower than in areas where regulated markets have remained.  Not so, says an April 2015 study by the American Public Power Association.  In fact, in 2014 prices in de-regulated markets were as much as 35% more than those in regulated states.  (Note: this study has been done by an organization with an interest in the result and as such may contain bias.)

So let’s go back to electricity system structuring.  When it comes to managing risk, we know risk is generally reduced through a diverse portfolio of alternatives.  The more diverse, the more risk can be reduced.  The current path will result in systems that are not diverse, but rather all gas, currently the most economic alternative.  If markets do not adapt to better accommodate risk management into their pricing strategies, we face a future of volatile energy prices, possible energy shortages as new plant construction lags market needs and increases rather than decreases in carbon emissions; all in the guise of more efficient markets.  Back to the decision in Illinois.  As stated in the referenced article, not only are these two plants Exelon’s best performers, they “support approximately 4,200 direct and indirect jobs and produce more than $1.2 billion in economic activity annually. A state report found that closing the plants would increase wholesale energy costs for the region by $439 million to $645 million annually. The report also found that keeping the plants open would avoid $10 billion in economic damages associated with higher carbon emissions over 10 years.”

We only need one major market disruption to remind us all of the importance of truly reliable baseload power at a stable and economic price and how that protects us from the risk of higher prices and lower security of supply.  And today, there is only one low carbon highly reliable baseload option, nuclear power.

So while a short term fix to keep operating nuclear plants open is required and more urgent than ever, let’s stop talking about how plants are uneconomic and work to properly improve market structures to build and maintain the strong, reliable, economic and low carbon systems needed to power our modern economies.

Let’s create awareness for all the benefits that nuclear technology brings to mankind

When a report on the benefits of nuclear technology starts with “The public are often unaware of the extent to which aspects of their everyday life involve products and processes originated from the application of nuclear technology via the nuclear industry”, it tells me that the time has come to tell this story and increase public awareness.


I had the opportunity to attend the Nuclear Industry Summit in Washington last month and was privileged to participate in Working Group 3 which had the mandate to summarize the role of the nuclear industry globally.  The NIS was a very successful event.  It was a companion event to the Nuclear Security Summit held by President Obama and provided an opportunity for the nuclear industry to interact and present its views to global leaders on the key issues of nuclear security and how the industry addresses it.

With the 5th anniversary of Fukushima having just passed last month and the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl this month, we have a steady reminder of the issues that never seem to go away for the nuclear industry.  It is our nature.  In his very enjoyable talk to the Canadian Nuclear Industry Conference in February, Malcolm Grimston asks the key question of why is it that the safest source of large scale electricity generation we have ever come up with is considered so dangerous by enough people that in a number of countries there is an effort to stop using nuclear energy?  I have commented on Malcolm’s presentations before and I really enjoy his perspective.  We in the industry tend towards the problem being an irrational public – Malcolm insists the public are quite rational and that it is actually the industry that is providing much of the information that frames public views.  An example is the constant talk by the industry about safety and how safety is the most important issue.  While intended to provide comfort, it can achieve quite the opposite effect.  If safety is even more important than generating electricity reliably and efficiently the answer is quite simple – shut down the plants and safety is assured.  I won’t go into more detail but I do recommend you watch Malcom’s presentation when you have 25 minutes to spare.

Or as was so eloquently put by the CEO of Ontario Power Generation at the CNA conference when talking about the nuclear industry, “we make sure to find the black cloud around every silver lining left to our own devices.”  Yes, we in the industry often succumb to the narrative and as Malcom suggests, probably even feed the beast. (Aside:  I also urge you to watch Jeff Lyash’s presentation when you have 20 minutes to spare.  It is an excellent view of the industry going forward.)

So rather than talk about safety and nuclear waste as we tend to do over and over again; in this post I want to help increase awareness of the many benefits that nuclear technology brings to us all across a range of industries.  The paper submitted by Working Group 3 led by Dr. John Barrett, President of the CNA is a must read.  It is one of those papers that once read makes you wonder; why hasn’t this paper been written this way before?  So please read the paper – it is about 20 pages and well worth it.

But for those who may not get there quickly enough here is a summary of the benefits that nuclear technology brings to society each and every day.  As stated in the paper, “Nuclear technology is vital for more than just providing reliable, low-carbon energy. It also has life-saving medical application; improves manufacturing, mining, transport and agriculture; and help us discover more about the planet we live on and how we can sustainably live with it.

So for example, did you know that

  • nuclear technology saves lives through use of radioisotopes for screening, diagnosis and therapy of various medical conditions? According to the WNA, over 10,000 hospitals worldwide use radioisotopes. Radioisotopes are used in therapy to control and damage cancerous growths. Iodine-131 is used to treat thyroid cancer; Phosophorus-32 to treat leukemia.  Nuclear techniques are used for neonatal screening for sickle cell disease, hypothyroidism and cystic fibrosis, as well as childhood cancers.
  • radiation is used to preserve seeds and food products and breed disease-resistant plants. In plant breeding, some 1800 new crop varieties have been developed through mutation induced by ionising radiation.
  • irradiation technology is increasingly being used to preserve food – spices, grains, fruit, vegetables and meat. It avoids the use of potentially harmful chemical fumigants and insecticides
  • use of the IAEA’s Sterile Insect Technique irradiates the eggs of these insects to sterilise them before hatching. The IAEA estimates that, by suppressing insect pest populations with SIT, pesticide use worldwide has been reduced by 600,000 litres annually.
  • in industrial radiography, nuclear substances are used for the non-destructive examination and testing of new materials. Radiation from the substances passes through the material and allows defects in welds or constituency to be recorded on film or a digital imager.

This list does not do justice to the report itself which I strongly suggest you read.  It’s time to stop being on the defensive and make sure that we no longer have to write reports that start with “The public are often unaware of the extent to which aspects of their everyday life involve products and processes originated from the application of nuclear technology via the nuclear industry.”  It is time to celebrate our successes and not just talk about where we need to improve.  We are proud to be part of the nuclear industry and we are confident that we are making a difference that helps to make the world a better place.