Planning for nuclear project success – the false security of a fixed price contract

Nuclear plants can be the workhorse for many utilities, offering reliable and economic electricity into their grids.  Operations across the globe have been excellent with the entire US fleet, representing a quarter of the world’s operating plants, consistently operating at 90% capacity factors or better.  However, building new nuclear plants is more challenging especially in Europe and the US where there has been a long pause in new plant construction.  This has meant the infrastructure and supply chain has had to be re-established for new plants to be built.

As a result, when it came time to restart nuclear construction, utilities who had not built plants for decades saw a path forward by passing on as much of the construction risk as possible to the plant vendors.  The strategy is straight forward; get a fixed price EPC contract so that the vendor takes on all the project risk and responsibility.  The belief is that these companies have developed the technology so they are obviously best suited to take this on.  The only problem with this logic, is that it is wrong.

Just talk to Southern Company or SCANA in the US, or TVO in Finland.  They negotiated hard and got their technology vendors to take on large fixed price contracts.  The result, Olkiluoto 3 is 9 years late and counting; and Areva has been forced to restructure.  And with Westinghouse in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Southern has had to take over the main contractor role at Vogtle and the Summer project has been cancelled.  Not quite the outcomes these owners were planning on.  While there are a number of reasons these projects have struggled, it is not because of the technologies themselves.  We have little doubt that once operating, these advanced designs will generate reliably for many years to come.  And while some believe nuclear plants just can’t be built to cost and schedule, we know this is not the case as can be seen in countries like China and Korea where they have been successfully implementing large ongoing new build programs consisting of standardized designs for many years.  Therefore, in this post we want to focus on some principles that owners should consider when structuring a project to effectively manage nuclear project risk and achieve project success.

Let’s start with some basic facts about nuclear projects.  They are large, capital-intensive projects with relatively long project schedules.  Once they are operating they have low and stable operating costs primarily due to the low cost of nuclear fuel.  Therefore, to maintain the economics of a nuclear project – plants must be built to cost and schedule.  And we all know, this often does not happen.  Large projects (of all kinds) are renown for going over budget and over time.

Nuclear projects take an incredible amount of planning and effort to complete successfully.  Success; this is the most important word not used nearly often enough in planning and executing a large nuclear project.  It is easy to get so consumed when talking about risk with figuring out which party will pay when things go wrong, we forget the most important objective is to absolutely ensure that things go right.

One of the most important lessons learned from these recent difficult projects is that the project owners took too much comfort from placing a huge amount of risk on the contractor – and the contractors’ willingness to take on this risk was accepted as a proxy for both capability and confidence that the overall level of risk was manageable.  The reality is that if you are an owner building a plant, there is one absolute truth – if it is your plant, then it is your risk.  There is no way out of it.  I can assure you that if the contractor fails, the owner fails.  Always.

It is essential to recognize that managing this risk is the owner’s responsibility.  And while this can be accomplished by transferring some risks to contractors and others to insurance – most of all, the owner needs to manage and mitigate this risk through its own strong project management.

How do you, the owner do this?  First of all, build a strong internal project management team to control the project.  If you don’t have enough experience, get it.  Once you have a team in place here are a few key tips.

  • Choose a design that has been built before. A standard deign will be lower in risk.  First of a Kind (FOAK) risk is real.  If it is not possible to avoid a new design, then plan to get the engineering completed before a final decision is made to proceed with the rest of the project and have a cost and schedule that take this higher level of uncertainty into account;
  • Invest in your supply chain. Don’t select your major contractors based on reputation alone.  Projects are built by people, not reputations.  Make sure the best people are assigned to your project.  Assume the contractors are not as good as you think they are and be prepared;
  • Choose contract structures that transfer risk to your contractors sufficient to incentivize them to perform. Pushing too much risk and then driving your main contractors into bankruptcy serves no one; and
  • Most of all, no matter the contract structure, there must be transparency through the contract because it is always your job as the owner to manage your project. It is in no one’s interest to allow the contractor to manage on his own and then watch him fail.  It is only with a strong set of project metrics and efficient reporting that problems can be identified early and acted upon – by all parties – with an unwavering focus on project success.

Nuclear plants are extremely reliable, efficient, low carbon and cost-effective producers of electricity.  As they are capital intensive, their economics depend upon successful project implementation.  Therefore, once you take a decision to implement such a project always remember that success is your responsibility and this responsibility cannot be passed on to others.  Keep that in mind when structuring your project and in all decisions you make – and you will be well on the road to achieving your goal – a successful nuclear project built to cost and schedule.




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.




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.




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.

hinkleypoint-c-drawingi

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.




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.

WattsBar

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.




It’s not about being “advanced”, it is ongoing innovation that will keep nuclear strong

This month in the United States, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was passed to support federal research and development and stimulate private investment in advanced nuclear reactor technologies.  All this good news about investment in the future made me think about how we use the words advanced and innovation in the nuclear industry.  We first wrote about innovation in the nuclear sector two years ago.  And what we said then still applies, in fact even more so, today.

When thinking about innovation in the nuclear industry, the discussion often centres around future reactor designs.  However, this far too narrow focus tends to an argument that a so called advanced design is what is required to save the industry and implies that today’s designs are just not good enough.  When we have a technology that produces abundant economic and reliable electricity with very low carbon, all while being one of the safest on earth; what we have today is something worth celebrating.  Yet it is not unusual for some supporters of nuclear power to use the idea that new advanced designs are the magic sauce that will make nuclear great again.

occupieds01e010069

                    Futuristic Thorium Plant from the Norwegian series “Occupied”

I was recently at a meeting where it was noted by someone who had recently visited Havana Cuba, that without access to newer technology, cars in Cuba are stuck in the past.  The Cubans have found ways to keep these old cars running well past their original lives as they had no access to anything newer.   And while we may find these relics fun to look at, we certainly don’t expect to be driving cars of this vintage.  In fact, we know that while the cars of today basically look the same and operate in a similar manner to those of the 1950s, there is likely not one part that is the same as was made 50 years ago.  Today’s car is made up of different materials, is computer controlled, is way more efficient and much much safer.  This is all due to years and years of innovation.  The same applies to nuclear plants.  What would have happened if back in 1955 or so people only talked about and invested in what would replace cars for individual transport (i.e. “advanced” cars meaning electric vehicles or even flying cars) instead of how to make them better?  The thought of it is just ridiculous.  Yet that seems to be a common view of nuclear – that all we are doing is keeping old outdated plants (like 1950’s cars) operating until we get these shiny new plants of the future ready for deployment.  Nothing can be further from the truth.

While yes, it is important to research and develop new concepts based on specific needs, for example closing the fuel cycle or using new types of fuel such as thorium; it is not the case that this is what is required to continue to evolve safety, reliability and economics.  For that we must continue to focus our efforts on improving what we have – innovating, taking the reactor designs available today – and making them better.  Just like cars, there is abundant technology in any given nuclear plant that extends far beyond what kind of fuel we choose to burn.  Implementing changes means using a large spectrum of new technologies that are being constantly developed as is necessary in every industry that wants to keep moving forward.

A great current example is the commitment in the US through the “Delivering the Nuclear Promise: Advancing Safety, Reliability and Economic Performance” initiative as the way forward to address falling prices of alternative generation options.  As stated, this “three-year program will identify efficiency measures and adopt best practices and technology solutions to improve operations, reduce generation cost and prevent premature reactor closure.”   Now this is what drives innovation.

Extending the lives of current reactors through better understanding of how materials age, first to 60 years and next possibly to 80 years, use of remote tooling to reduce dose and shorten outages, use of new technology in controls to improve reliability; all of these things require innovation.

When it comes to new build, there is innovation in methods to reduce construction time and improve quality such as computer engineering tools, modularization and even simple things such as moving platforms to replace scaffolding and on and on and on.  This is innovation.   And let’s not forget about commercial innovation.  Innovative business models such as those used in Canada for refurbishment and in the UK for new build are critical to future industry success.  This even includes models from places like Russia where they are working with foreign customers in ways thought not possible in the past.  Will this all work?  Some things will and some things wont, but this is innovation.  It is messy, it takes time – and it continues to move the industry forward.  And most of this innovation will apply to all reactor types, todays and those of the future.

I support the development of future designs– just not at the expense of making the public think our current designs have hit their ‘best before date’.  I am concerned that the industry is risking too much on the importance of government money for advanced designs– i.e. here is a few hundred million dollars to study designs for the 2030s so shut up and focus on the future – then come back in 20 years or so when you have the next great thing.  We cannot afford a mindset that says nuclear must stop until then as the world continues to build more and more gas plants and renewables.  Every year these alternatives, wind and solar get better – and we need to do the same (and frankly we are).

The world needs abundant low carbon, economic and reliable electricity now if we are to replace coal and meet the needs of an energy hungry world.  To meet the WNA target of 1,000 GW – 1000 new, 1000 MW nuclear plants by 2050 means we need to be building lots of new plants TODAY – not waiting until the next big thing comes around in a decade or two.

So, today’s nuclear technology must continue to move forward and demonstrate it is a technology of the future and that improvements are continuing to come that make every project better than the last.  We need to better celebrate our achievements and we need to continue to invest in further innovation because there is no choice but to continue to get better.

Our strength is through our performance.  And our performance continues to get better through innovation, each and every day.




Abundant and economic – Nuclear power delivers

The past few weeks have seen lots of excitement as the world reached agreement to tackle climate change in Paris. What is key to the Paris deal is a requirement that every nation (all 195 of them) take part. Ahead of the talks, governments of 186 nations put forth public plans detailing how they would cut carbon emissions over the next 10 to 15 years. However, these plans alone, should they come to fruition, will cut emissions by only half the levels required to meet the targets set out in the agreement. The plans vary significantly from country to country with some like China depending upon nuclear power as part of their plan – and others not. With no concrete plan to achieve the goals in the agreement, one thing is clear; that if there is any chance of meeting these ambitious goals, there will have to be a larger role for nuclear power.

Critics of nuclear power generally focus on two main issues: safety, mostly concern that the consequences of a possible nuclear accident are not worth the risk; and cost, with many noting that nuclear is a high cost option that just diverts funds from the real environmental options for future generation, wind and solar. This month we will talk about cost and how to ensure that nuclear is seen for what it is, a capital intensive yet highly economic option for reliable 24/7 generation. If nuclear is to play the role that it can, and must play in the future generation mix, it can only get there by being the economic option of choice.

In our last post we noted the updated version of “Project Costs of Electricity” has recently been published. This is an important report that is now in its 8th edition from the IEA and NEA looking at the costs of various forms of electricity generation.

The results of this study are very clear. It shows that nuclear is a very competitive option on a Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) basis.

baseload costs

renewable costs 2015 dec

In fact, at low discount rates (3%), it is the clear winner among both traditional fossil technologies and the cost of renewables. While the report acknowledges the huge gains made by renewables in reducing their costs, it also notes the belief that nuclear costs continue to rise is false.

What is of interest is how the results are presented. The main comparisons in the executive summary are provided varying only one parameter, discount rates, that range from 3% to 10%. This represents a three-fold increase in the discount rate over the range. It is therefore not surprising that the technologies that are capital intensive, i.e. nuclear and renewables show the greatest sensitivity to this one parameter. This is one way to look at the comparative economics. On the other hand, generating stations powered by fuels like coal and gas are much more sensitive to fuel price. This sensitivity is only shown later on in the report in a sensitivity section.

                                       Figure 7.12: LCOE as a function of fuel cost

Fuel Sensitivity

So for example, while gas plants (CCGT) vary little with discount rates due to their relatively low capital costs and higher fuel costs, their LCOE is very sensitive to fuel prices. In the chart above, the sensitivity only varies fuel prices by up to 50%; rather small in comparison to the three-fold change in discount rates in the earlier chart. Yet we all know that today’s very low gas prices in North America are easily less than half as much as they were only a few years ago. Doubling gas prices or more would have a huge impact on electricity costs.

As would be expected, the economics also vary by region. It is no accident that China is building the most nuclear plants in the world. Even though they are also building many more coal plants to meet their ever increasing hunger for energy, nuclear plants provide clean reliable energy at about half the cost of coal in China making it an easy decision to move forward with new nuclear plants as quickly as they can. On the other hand, this past month we have once again heard about nuclear plants in the United States that are likely going to close prematurely due to poor economics. This results mostly from very low gas prices that impact the economics in those parts of the country that have open competitive markets. The units that are most impacted are the older smaller single unit stations that are requiring capital investment at this stage of their life cycle. Without any acknowledgement of the low carbon characteristics of nuclear, or the reliability of fuel supply (gas plants generally are fed by pipelines that are at risk in cold winter months), these units are struggling. Yet the industry in the USA is not standing still. As reported in the December 10 Nucleonics Week, the US industry is targeting to reduce its costs for the existing fleet by 30%. Once achieved, this will ensure that once again nuclear will be the lowest cost generation on the system.

However, this is only the first step. Being a low carbon generator is only sufficient to ensure that nuclear remains an option. The key to long term success is the ability to reduce the capital costs of constructing the plant; producing low cost energy is what will really drive a strong new build program. This can be seen in countries such as China and Korea, where capital costs are relatively low, making nuclear by far the most economic option available. Lessons learned in these markets must be shared and implemented globally to bring down capital costs in other markets as well. China and Korea are showing the way. If the rest of the world follows, abundant nuclear power will play a large role in tackling climate change as the electrical grid workhorse of reliable low-carbon and mostly, economic generation, for decades to come.




Dreaming of a future with abundant clean reliable energy – then dream about nuclear

When we look to the future, people the world over are hopeful for an era of abundant reliable electricity supplying all of our energy needs; all at a reasonable cost and with little to no impact to the environment. Unfortunately, in many western countries the politics of electricity planning has become largely a case of exploring the depths of our imagination with no real path to achieving this essential goal.

As stated by Malcolm Grimston at the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Annual Symposium last month in his brilliant talk “Sclerosis at the heart of energy policy” (in advance of a book he has coming out), we have become so accustomed to reliable and cost effective electricity supply that we can no longer ever consider a scenario where this can be at risk. He noted we even use the less than frightening phrase “keeping the lights on” when talking about reliability which greatly understates the importance of reliable electricity supply to our modern society. (As he said, he turns out his lights every night without concern – certainly a large scale disruption to our energy supplies would be much worse than having the lights go off.)

Given we can’t imagine electricity reliability to be at risk; and given we have relatively slow growth in most western advanced economies there is a major reluctance to take decisions to protect and invest in our infrastructure for the future even while we want to work towards decarbonizing the system. Yes electricity demand growth is modest, but our lives depend more on reliable electricity supplies than ever before. Without electricity society quickly becomes paralyzed with no ability to communicate, travel, maintain our food supply, sanitation, deliver health care and so on…in fact it is very difficult for us in all of our modern comfort to imagine how severe the consequences would be. Therefore in our great complacency we continue to do nothing because we all expect that the next great technological breakthrough is just around the corner. All we need to do is wait and advanced renewables will be available so we can have clean limitless energy forever. And so goes the narrative.

Ben Heard in his excellent WNA presentation “World without Nuclear” quotes Naomi Klein as she spoke to the media against the nuclear option in South Australia – “What’s exciting about this renewables revolution spreading around the world, is that it shows us that we can power our economies without the enormous risk that we have come to accept”. She said the latest research showed renewables could power 100 per cent of the world’s economies. “We can do it without those huge risks and costs associated with nuclear so why wouldn’t we?” she said.

But of course if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ben’s presentation goes on to review 20 studies that suggest that a world powered by 100% renewables can be a reality. However, in his review he rates most of these studies as poor. Overall he concludes that there is actually scant evidence for 100 % renewable feasibility while the literature affirms large dispatchable, i.e. guaranteed 24/7 supply is indispensable. His final conclusion is that global decarbonization requires a much faster-growing nuclear sector.

Fast Decarbonization

Reproduced from Agneta Rising Presentation at the WNA Annual Symposium 2015

But how can we have more nuclear when it has this perception of huge risks? We have written extensively on the issues associated with the perception of nuclear as a dangerous technology when in reality it has the best safety record of all technologies out there so we won’t talk about that again now. In his presentation Malcolm Grimston places much of the responsibility for this public perception squarely on the nuclear industry noting that the industry “spends half of its time implying that it is the new priesthood, with superhuman powers to guarantee safety; and the other half of its time behaving as if radiation is much much more dangerous than it actually is.” While it is hard to know what comes first, the fear or the industry reaction to it, we certainly agree that Malcolm makes a good point.

Then there are those that say nuclear power is way too expensive to be part of our future electricity system even though there is no doubt that wind and solar power are clearly the more expensive options. The most recent edition of “Project Costs of Electricity”; an important report that is now in its 8th edition from the IEA and NEA looking at the costs of various forms of electricity generation has just been published. (This report is a must for anyone seriously looking at trends and costs of electricity generation around the globe.) While the report acknowledges the huge gains made by renewables in reducing their costs, it also demonstrates that nuclear power is one of the lowest cost options available depending upon the scenario. Of more importance, the report notes that the belief that nuclear costs continue to rise is false stating that, in general, baseload technologies are not increasing in costs and specifically “this is particularly notable in the case of nuclear technologies, which have costs that are roughly on a par with those reported in the prior study, thus undermining the growing narrative that nuclear costs continue to increase globally”.

We will have more to say about this report in upcoming posts. But for now, let’s all do more than dream about a future of abundant, reliable, clean and yes, economic electricity; let’s make this dream a reality by making sure that the electricity system of the future includes highly reliable 24/7 nuclear power.




It’s time to put nuclear on the offensive – and make it the low carbon energy generation option of choice

Have you ever seen something that just amazed you? We were wowed by a recent YouTube video showing what the Chinese have achieved in turning conventional high-rise construction on its head. A 57 story building was built in 19 days – yes – 19 days! Who would ever believe this could be possible? I live in Toronto, a city that has been undergoing a huge hi-rise building boom over the last few years and the time it takes to build these tall towers can be measured in months and years, not days. This just shows what can be achieved when the imagination is let loose and innovation results in outcomes never before thought possible.

We first wrote about the importance of innovation in the nuclear sector last year. In its history nuclear power has shown incredible innovation, leading the way in a range of technologies especially with respect to delivering a level of safety and security not seen in any other industry. More recently there have been dramatic improvements in operations as the global fleet has reached a level of performance never even dreamed of in the early days of the industry. Current new build projects are using the most up to date methodology in modularization and other advanced construction techniques.

And yet when the IEA issued the 2015 version of its Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP 2105) report focusing on the need for energy technology innovation if the world is to address climate change; it doesn’t mention this innovation, nor does it include discussion of potential future innovation with respect to the nuclear option.

As stated, “Energy technology innovation is central to meeting climate mitigation goals while also supporting economic and energy security objectives. Ultimately, deploying proven, cost-effective technologies is what will make the energy system transformation possible. Continued dependence on fossil fuels and recent trends such as unexpected energy market fluctuations reinforce the role of governments, individually and collectively, to stimulate targeted action to ensure that resources are optimally aligned to accelerate progress. Establishing policy and market frameworks that support innovation and build investor confidence over the long term is a first-order task to deliver.”

The report is clear when it says that “Innovation support is crucial across the low-carbon technology spectrum”. The discussion focuses on renewable technologies in the short term due their relative readiness and lack of a need for long term investment in development; and carbon capture (CCS) in the medium to longer term even though it requires substantive investment in development as it remains essential to address the large number of fossil plants being built and still in operation by 2050 that will require decarbonizing.

As usual, the same issues that have plagued nuclear for the last 30 years; primarily public acceptance issues, mute a positive discussion for the nuclear option. While recognizing its importance in achieving increased energy security, diversity of fuel supply and lower emissions, the report goes on to state “this awareness has yet to be translated into policy support for long-term operation of the existing fleet and construction of new plants” … “to recognize the vital contribution that nuclear energy can make.”

Yet the actual IEA scenarios have changed little from last year. As shown below, when considering technologies individually (rather than grouping into “renewables”), nuclear actually plays the largest role of any single technology in meeting carbon reduction targets showing that, even as it is stands today, the nuclear option is absolutely essential to moving to the IEA 2 Degree Scenario (2DS).

ETP2015

This can only be the case if nuclear is currently meeting its responsibility to be economic and reliable while being an essential large scale low carbon option. Given that we know the largest challenges in building new nuclear plants is related to their relatively high capital costs and long project schedules relative to other options; consider the role nuclear can play if improvements similar to those demonstrated in the Chinese YouTube video were implemented. Not marginal improvements, but mind blowing changes in approach that shake current thoughts about the costs and schedules of nuclear projects to their very core. This is the way forward. While discussion of next generation plants and SMRs is of interest, we need continued innovation that takes what we know now and improves it beyond what anyone can imagine.

The report shows that government investment in nuclear R&D has been dropping and in renewables has been increasing. This investment must be refocused on project improvement and innovation rather than the traditional areas of research such as safety and waste management where it has been spent for decades. While important for the nuclear industry, too much of this spending is focused in these areas just to pander to the ongoing public beliefs that safety and waste issues remain unresolved. Rather, emphasis should be on continuing to improve new build project performance. Let’s think about new build nuclear in the same way we think about renewable technologies; that more investment and research will lead to shorter construction schedules and lower costs. It is time to let the innovation genie out of the bottle, stop being on the defensive and move forward with great things. With changes like this, the nuclear share will grow well beyond current expectations bringing a real solution to climate change while keeping electricity bills low and system reliability high.

So remember, nuclear power is essential in achieving increased energy security, diversity of fuel supply and lower emissions; and is already expected to have the largest impact on meeting climate goals of any other single technology. Today’s plants are economically competitive and provide safe and reliable electricity. Talking about investing in energy innovation without a discussion of investing in nuclear, when it’s currently the best option available, is absurd. Governments need to recognize the incredible innovation already achieved by the nuclear option, and unleash even greater potential by investing in this well proven technology.




As 2014 comes to a close, nuclear power is at a crossroads – again!

The world needs nuclear power – so says the latest edition of the World Energy Outlook (WEO) issued in November. “Nuclear power is one of the few options available at scale to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions while providing or displacing other forms of baseload generation. It has avoided the release of an estimated 56 gigatonnes of C02 since 1971, or almost two years of total global emissions at current rates.”

Yet looking back at 2014, the industry has had its ups and downs. There were setbacks as France formalized its intention to reduce its reliance on nuclear going forward, Sweden pulled back after its most recent election, and in Finland the Olkiluoto 3 project was delayed once again. In the US, the most recent plant to be shutdown is the Vermont Yankee plant; shutdown after 42 years of operation as not being economic, yet its shutdown will definitely raise electricity costs for its consumers and impact the local economy as a result of its closure-related job losses.

Yankee Atomic 2014

Vermont Yankee shuts down

There was good news in Japan as the first units were approved for restart since the 2011 Fukushima accident, although the actual restarts are taking longer than expected. The re-election of the Abe government also bodes well for Japan’s nuclear future. In the UK, there was a big win as Europe approved the project at Hinkley Point as not contravening state-aid rules; but once again progress is slower than most would like.

And then there are places where nuclear power is booming. China brought new units into operations and approved numerous new units with a larger-than-life target for its nuclear share in 2020 and beyond. The Chinese also approved its first Hualong One reactor, the evolution and combining of designs from both CGNPC and CNNC, as they plan for future exports. Korea approved new units and its first new site in decades. Russia continues to grow both domestically and continues to be very aggressive in the export market.

Given the importance of nuclear power, it is the first time since 2006 the WEO includes a special chapter on nuclear – in fact this time 3 full chapters performing a detailed in-depth analysis of the nuclear option. It clearly demonstrates the benefits of nuclear power in addition to being one of the only generation options at scale available to reduce carbon emissions; it also plays an important role as a reliable source of baseload electricity that enhances energy security. Clearly the benefits and the need for more nuclear is becoming clearer than ever. So why is there this continuing imbalance as we look around the world at various counties’ policies for nuclear power?

The WEO notes two significant issues holding back a large-scale nuclear renaissance. These are public concern and economics. Both are valid and need to be better addressed by the industry. We have written much over the past year or so on the importance of improving public attitudes and, in fact, in many countries we now see improvement. But we also acknowledge there is a long way to go to reduce public fear about nuclear power. For example, even though the main objective of Germany’s Energiewende is to reduce carbon emissions; their even stronger emotional response against nuclear is causing a short term increase in carbon emissions .i.e. their fear of nuclear is stronger than their desire for a cleaner environment.

On the cost side, concerns about high capital costs and completing projects to cost and schedule are valid. The industry has more work to do on this issue as evidenced by some recent projects. At the same time we see that countries such as Korea and China, who are building series of plants in sequence and are achieving the benefits of replication and standardization resulting in lower costs and improved certainty, are completing projects to cost and schedule. Yes, it can be done. But even these countries are not immune to public concerns.

The real problem is that these concerns tend to overwhelm the discussion even amongst energy professionals. For example the summary in Chapter 12 of the WEO, “The Implications of Nuclear Power”, starts “Provided waste disposal and safety issues can be satisfactorily addressed, nuclear power’s limited exposure to disruptions in international fuel markets and its role as a reliable source of baseload electricity can enhance energy security….. “. Renewables are always addressed with hope and little concern for their very real issues while discussions about nuclear are most often focused on its challenges.

Yet even at Google, engineers have come to a conclusion that the challenges to achieving climate goals with renewables are very large. Two Google engineers assigned by the company to show how renewable energy can tackle climate change each came to a blunt conclusion: It can’t be done. As stated, “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”

The following figure sums it up very clearly. In the case that doom and gloom overwhelms good policy and decision making, we may end up with the Low Nuclear Scenario. But this scenario has real implications – “taken at the global level, a substantial shift away from nuclear power, as depicted in the Low Nuclear Case, has adverse implications for energy security, and economic and climate trends, with more severe consequences for import-dependent countries that had been planning to rely relatively heavily on nuclear power.” Of more importance, at the other end of the spectrum is the 450 Scenario which the IEA believes we need to achieve to truly have an impact on climate change. And in this case, even more nuclear power than the so called “High Nuclear Case” Is needed.

WEOFigure11 12

So there it is, the best way to economically and efficiently address climate change is with a substantial contribution by nuclear power. This year’s WEO lays out the challenge very clearly – once gain nuclear power is at a crossroads. The options range from a slow decline to a more than doubling of nuclear power in the next 25 years. Nuclear power must be an important part of any future low carbon energy system but there are beliefs that are very well entrenched in the minds of both the public and even many global energy professionals that must be addressed once and for all. It is our responsibility to take on these challenges for a brighter future. It’s time to go big and work together to build a strong base of global support for nuclear power. Beliefs are hard to change, but change them we must if we are to have a sustainable, abundant and economic energy future for us all.

And as 2014 comes to a close, I want to thank all of you for continuing to read our blog and contribute to the discussion. Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2015!