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.




An Inconvenient Reality – Nuclear Power is needed to achieve climate goals

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon, I decided to go and see Al Gore’s update on climate change, “An Inconvenient Sequel:  Truth to Power”.  While certainly a powerful update on the importance of climate change and on the need to do something about it, I was disappointed.  Why?  Because, once again, after repeating the phrase “climate crisis” many many many times over its 140 minutes (would really like to know how many times this phrase is repeated), the solutions presented exclude the one with the largest potential, nuclear power.

While showing us melting glaciers and extreme weather, a case is then made that renewables are finally taking hold and the future is now within reach.   The film claims there are jurisdictions that are indeed close to 100% renewables and talks about some already achieving 100% for limited periods of time.

We have talked about this before in our discussion of the recently published study that criticized the popular Marc Jacobson paper claiming a 100% renewable United States is achievable by 2050.  It simply cannot be achieved; and it’s time to focus on a larger basket of solutions that can actually solve the climate crisis.

The large Banning Pass 615 MW wind farm in California provides as much energy as one fifth of a standard 1,000 MW nuclear plant – is this what we consider environmental progress?

After watching the movie, I went to the web site and signed up for emails from the Climate Reality Project.  On the first email, there was a box asking for donations labelled “Science Matters”.  And yes, it does.  Science tells us that nuclear power provides large amounts of low carbon electricity economically and reliably.  In fact, during the recent Hurricane Harvey that flooded Houston Texas, it was the South Texas Project nuclear plants that kept running ensuring ongoing electricity supply.  If you want to advocate to resolve the climate crisis, then all science matters, not just the science that supports a certain point of view.

However, there are also important lessons to be learned for the nuclear industry from this movie.  First of all, the environmental movement has succeeded in making the word “renewable” completely synonymous with both “low carbon” and “clean”.  There is little argument from the public when stating renewables are the solution to climate change.  Whereas in reality it is “low carbon” energy that is needed.  Look at any country’s projections for the future and they will talk about their target for renewables, not for low carbon energy.  If we really have a “climate crisis”, then limiting the solution to a subset of what is available when it comes to low carbon options will not lead to the outome that we all need.

There is no doubt that Al Gore is a very credible champion in the fight against climate change.  The nuclear industry does not have the same although change is in the air.  As we discussed last month, there are now pro-nuclear NGOs with credible leadership.  In the movie, Al Gore offers training to support those who want to become climate advocates.  This includes lectures and the provision of useful presentation materials.  I suggest that this is what is required for the nuclear industry.  Provide training in nuclear advocacy and offer up materials to be used.  While there is excellent information available on industry websites such as the Canadian Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and of course the vast resources on the World Nuclear Association site, I would suggest there is still more work to be done.  We now live in a visual world so let’s make sure we offer a large photo gallery and useful charts and diagrams that can readily be dropped into any presentation.  This includes factual information on other forms of energy as well such as wind and solar – and information on countries such as Germany who have taken decisions on their energy future that clearly show their progress, or lack thereof.

So, if the movie is right and the world is in crisis, it makes absolutely no sense to not use all the options available to humanity to solve this crisis.  Limiting the fight to options that are clearly insufficient is akin to madness.   At the end of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power,” the audience is asked to take the pledge to be inconvenient — to keep demanding schools, businesses and towns invest in clean, renewable energy.  We agree, be inconvenient and also demand that nuclear power play the significant role that it can to really make a difference because the inconvenient reality is that renewables are just not going to get us there.

Sometimes we need to ask if, for many in the environmental movement, decarbonization is really the goal?  Imagine a world where all the electricity was suddenly generated by nuclear power eliminating carbon emissions completely so that the climate crisis was solved.  Would Al Gore consider this a win?  I just don’t know.




Advocating for nuclear power – the time is right

We live in strange times.  Globally, populism is growing in response to a deep-seated anger with so-called liberal elites.  Experts are no longer respected over louder voices that support peoples’ strongly held views.  There are no facts, only beliefs.

While most of the world continues to support the Paris agreement on climate, there is a reluctance by some to include nuclear power in the tool-kit to help meet this global challenge.  There is wide spread belief that Germany is going down the right path as it eliminates nuclear from its mix and drastically increases its use of renewables.  The only problem is that fossil fuel use is also increasing and emissions are not going down.  This has not stopped other countries like France, which has one of the lowest emissions in Europe due to their nuclear fleet, setting out a policy to reduce reliance on nuclear.  And now Korea seems to be going down the same path even though it would probably be hard to find another country that has benefited more through successfully implementing its nuclear program.

Does this mean that nuclear power is getting ready to move over and cede the future of energy supply to a fully renewable world?  Not even close.  With 58 units under construction there are now more new nuclear units coming into service each year than in the last 20 years.  The UAE is nearing completion of its first units, a four-unit station as it becomes the newest entry into the nuclear club.

On the other hand, in the USA units are struggling to stay in service in de-regulated states and one of two new build projects has been stopped in the face of Westinghouse bankruptcy.

In the midst of all of this apparent chaos, there is a bright light.  People are standing up saying – don’t close my nuclear plants.  People are recognizing that removing large low carbon emitting stations from the energy mix is no way to improve the climate.  And most of all these people are ready and willing to fight.  In the more than 35 years we have been in the nuclear industry I don’t remember a time when there were strong vocal pro-nuclear NGOs.  Yes, that’s right – there are those who are not directly in the nuclear industry who have taken up the fight for nuclear.  Not because they have any great passion for the technology, but because (as we discussed in May), they see nuclear plants as the ultimate solution to important issues.  They want to save the environment.  They want plentiful economic energy and they know that nuclear is an important part of the solution.

                  More vocal pro-nuclear NGOs today than we have had in 35 years

These organizations include a growing list of environmentalists such as Environmental Progress, Energy for Humanity, Bright New World and Mothers for Nuclear – to name a few (this list is not meant to be exhaustive so if your organization is advocating for nuclear power, please comment with your name and a link).  What they have in common is an understanding that nuclear power is not the evil that some think it is and that in fact it can help to make the world a better place.  And of more importance they are willing to advocate for it.

The way I look at it, there are two types of advocacy.  First there is the broader objective of securing public support; and then there is the more targeted advocacy that fights in the trenches to get political support for specific projects and actions.   It is this second approach that I want to focus on here.  These pro-nuclear groups consist of many who have spent their lives advocating for what they believe in; and therefore, bring a knowledge of how to influence decision makers and raise the profile of their cause.  I have talked before about Meredith Angwin’s wonderful book on how to be a nuclear advocate.  It’s a “how to” on getting out there and taking action.  Or take the case of the nuclear bus – old fashion grass roots activism.

As was once explained to me, it is always easier to be against something than to be a supporter.  It is anger about things that people believe is wrong in the world that ignites passion and brings them to the streets; supporters often stay at home and discuss these projects with their friends over a glass of wine.   That is in part why there is so much passion about stopping the closure of existing nuclear plants.  It is easier to be against closing them with the impacts to emissions and our communities than to argue in support of building something new.  This is the beginning.

Because after all, it is a numbers game.  200 anti-project protesters can get a lot of press even though there may be 2000 who support the project but who stayed home.  It’s about getting people out – politicians want to do the will of the people and they need to see this will.  Supporting continued operations of a plant or even a new build is much easier if the preponderance of the people speaking at public hearings are in favour of the project.

The word we use today is “social license”.  But what does this really mean?  If it means securing significant local support for something then it is a laudable goal.  However, most anti-nuclear (or anti-anything) groups take it to the extreme and mean that they have to agree with proceeding; which is something they will never do.  As stated so eloquently by Rex Murphy in his piece on the efforts of the new NDP government desire to develop oil in Alberta – “Notley [the Premier] missed the central point of social licence: its preconditions can never be met, and are not meant to be. It is an obstructionist tactic, designed to forestall and delay.”

So why are countries ignoring the potential benefits of nuclear power as they strive to feed their energy hungry citizens with low carbon economic energy?  There are many reasons as we and others have discussed before.  We certainly believe that the overriding issue is fear.  But we can also see that when people become supporters based on nuclear power being a solution to issues of importance to them, they do their homework and are able to resolve their fear.  So we need to ask ourselves are people really that afraid, or is this also a remnant of the past where environmentally conscious groups were synonymous with being anti-nuclear?  Are we seeing the last vestiges of a generation that fears nuclear power at all costs?  Do we now have the opportunity to start to change the minds of a new generation that is willing to stand up and advocate for nuclear power?   It may well be.

One thing is for sure, we all need to get out there and advocate for what we believe in.  The time for talk is over – it is time to act.  We need to organize and be sure to be out there every opportunity we can to support the decisions that we believe are necessary to achieve our goals.

So,

  • if you believe that climate change is a threat and that fossil fuel use is the main culprit; or
  • if you believe that access to economic reliable energy is essential for progress and is critical to lift people out of poverty; or
  • if you believe that high quality jobs and technological innovation is good for our communities and our economies; or
  • if you want a future for your children and grandchildren with abundant plentiful reliable economic and low carbon energy to support them as they create their own future;

Then the answer is clear – and that answer is nuclear power.

This is a call to action.  We all need to work together to advocate for what we know is right.  We have been involved in this industry for close to 40 years and still are passionate supporters –  because we truly believe we can leave the world a better place than when we started.




Energy policy cannot be based on fantasy – the truth may yet prevail

Over the last week or so, the internet has been abuzz with articles on the recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar”, by 21 prominent scientists taking issue with Mark Jacobson’s earlier study claiming that 100% renewables is feasible in the USA by 2050.   Given the strong desire to believe in this utopian future; and how many prominent people have referenced this Jacobson paper to support their energy views, it is somewhat surprising how much press the opposing view elicited.  That being said, most of the articles had titles like, “A bitter scientific debate just erupted over the future of America’s power grid” or “Fisticuffs Over the Route to a Clean-Energy Future” making it seem like this is about scientific debate, when it is actually about a paper that has been proven to be false.

As stated by this paper’s authors, “In this paper, we evaluate that study [the Jacobson study] and find significant short- comings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.”  These are pretty strong statements for an academic paper.

Of course, for most of us in the industry this study is telling us what we already knew, that 100% reliance on intermittent low-density energy sources is not going to meet the needs of an energy hungry world.  We suggest you read a few of the articles and of most importance, the actual paper.  We would also recommend you read the article by James Conca “Debunking The Unscientific Fantasy Of 100% Renewables” which takes aim at the issue of bad science.

But the world is passionately in love with renewables.  What can be better or more natural than wind and solar?  It makes you feel good – there are no problems that can’t be overcome with these wondrous technologies.  They definitely don’t cost too much [but they need subsidies], or have environmental or waste issues [solar waste is increasing] and of course their intermittency is a modest problem to be resolved by smart people [by building more gas to back them up].  On the other hand, fossil fuels emit carbon and while nuclear plants are low carbon, they are dangerous – everybody knows that.  And in this era of fake news and alternate facts, why would anyone want to change this glorious view of the future?

Of course, the option that does tick all the boxes for a low carbon energy revolution is nuclear power.  And we are starting to see this position being more widely accepted.  As the dream of a renewables only future fades, the merits of nuclear are once again coming to the forefront.  That is why the US government is taking action to save its operating nuclear plants that are struggling in de-regulated markets, the UK is strongly supporting new build, Canada is refurbishing its aging nuclear fleet and China is rapidly expanding its share of nuclear production.

Countries like Germany that are committed to phasing out nuclear for a 100% renewable future are further proof that this approach to decarbonization is flawed as they add coal production to make up for their nuclear shortfall.  Now Korea seems to be following this approach as their new president is committed to getting rid of both coal and nuclear (70% of their current system) for a renewable future.  We only hope this analysis of Jacobson’s paper is a wake-up call that is heeded in these markets that now seem to be following an unrealistic romantic world view rather than a realistic one.

Once again, I have to quote Michael Shellenberger.  In his proposal for Atomic Humanism his first principle is – “nuclear is special. Only nuclear can lift all humans out of poverty while saving the natural environment. Nothing else — not coal, not solar, not geo-engineering — can do that.  How does the special child, who is bullied for her specialness, survive? By pretending she’s ordinary. As good as — but no better than! — coal, natural gas or renewables.”

And it is this pretending that needs to stop.  There is no longer a need to be defensive when supporting the nuclear option.   Or as stated by the Department of Energy in the USA“…  we’re particularly proud of the contributions being made by the nation’s nuclear power plants. Nuclear is, in short, a clean, constant, and downright cool energy resource. Unfortunately, many people may not understand how remarkable this unique energy source truly is, or the role that it plays in our energy portfolio and Americans’ daily lives.

We are at a crossroad.  The time has come to strongly support the best technology that can reliably meet the energy hunger of the world and we need to make it known to policy makers everywhere.  Making energy policy on a hope and a dream is no way to plan our energy future.  Nuclear power is the only true path to a low carbon future with the vast amount of energy needed to fuel the world that is both economic and reliable – and yes safe.  If we work hard to support the facts, the truth may yet prevail.  Or as stated by Michael Shellenberger – Nuclear is special – let’s say it loud and let’s say it proud!




A strategy for nuclear communications – listen

Not a day goes by when we don’t read something about the public acceptance problem in the nuclear industry.  A recent article preaching the end of the nuclear era had a pretty strong statement that sums up like this – “Nuclear looks ever more like a 20th-century dinosaur, unloved by investors, the public, and policymakers alike.”  While I don’t believe this is actually the case, I am sure that many in the public would not find much to fault with it.  And that is the challenge we face.

For more than 30 years we have been hearing that the public just don’t understand the nuclear message – that we need to better educate them – and that while we are all smart folks we are very bad at communicating.  Yawn……

As an industry, we pride ourselves on maintaining detailed OPEX from around the world and learning lessons to foster continuous operations improvement.  Yet, while there has actually been a lot of recent good work on communicating with the public, in this non-technical area we are much slower in leaning the lessons we need to learn.

Beliefs about nuclear power are well entrenched in society.  Most of the concerns come from its weapons origin and a significant fear of radiation that will not just go away with a simple explanation or better education.

This fear translates into fears about nuclear power plants.  It is a common belief that we are safely operating doomsday machines.  i.e. that a nuclear accident can have such far reaching consequences that it can literally destroy the world.  If that is one’s belief how can you convince him or her to support this technology? Talking about low probabilities is of little interest when the perceived consequence is so dire.

Yet, there is hope.  There is generational change coming and this new generation is not afraid of technology, but rather sees it as the solution to everything.  They have other issues on their minds such as climate change – they likely don’t think much about nuclear power at all.

In our home country of Canada, a recent small study shows very interesting results.  Without any scene setting, a simple question on whether the public is in favour of nuclear power shows about a fifth in favour, a third against and the most, about half in the undecided column.  This probably demonstrates that nuclear power is not a top of mind issue for many Canadians.  However, what is important about this study is that once the question is asked again, if prefaced by some scenarios providing information – such as today nuclear provides 17% of electricity in Canada but less than 1% of carbon emissions; or that Canada has more than 50 years of operating nuclear plants safely; or that small reactors may provide much needed energy to help in Canada’s remote communities; then the result is quite different.  The chart below suggests that given a positive reason to think about nuclear power, people are likely to change their view with support growing and opposition declining.  The lesson here is that people can be open to a new discussion about nuclear power BUT this must be on the basis of them considering that it is a possible solution to an issue of relative importance to them.

Or to be more clear, the first step is not trying to reduce the fear of nuclear.  Without giving people a reason to listen you may as well be talking to yourself.  What is needed is to LISTEN, understand what issues are important to the public and demonstrate that nuclear power is a possible solution.  Whether their issue is climate change, energy poverty in the far north, energy innovation, high quality job creation, or just electricity reliability; it is only by addressing these issues that there will be an appetite for listening to us to find out more.

A great example is the group Environmental Progress in the USA.  Here is a world renown life long environmentalist, Michael Shellenberger, taking up the fight to support nuclear power as a tool to meet environmental goals.  I don’t know Michael personally but I would guess that he didn’t just wake up one day with a huge aha moment and decide nuclear power is a fantastic technology that he wanted to support; but rather he looked for solutions to what is important to him, the environment. This is clearly set out in the EP mission – “Nature and Prosperity for All – Environmental Progress (EP) was founded to achieve two big goals: lift all humans out of poverty, and save the natural environment. These goals can be achieved by mid-century — but only if we remove the obstacles to cheap, reliable and clean energy.”  I expect that over time, in his quest to improve the environment, he came to consider nuclear as an option and became open to listening and learning more about whether this option would help to achieve these goals.

I have read many of the posts by EP and they are excellent.  But what is of interest to me as an industry person is that the arguments being made in support of nuclear power are not new.  In fact, they are mostly the same arguments we have been making for the more than the 35 years we have been in this industry.  So, what has changed?  The dialogue.  Once there was a clear goal that is not directly about nuclear power, there became an openness to learn more about those options that can help meet that goal.  And then the facts can be discussed and as we know, the facts tell a good story.

What do we learn here?  We have a huge opportunity today to change the discussion about nuclear power, but the first step is to stop and listen.  It’s not about talking about safety and the LNT model for radiation protection; it’s about understanding the issues of importance to a new generation and then having a conversation to show that nuclear can be part of the solution.  Just trying to educate has taken us nowhere.  But once we listen, then we can expect others to open their minds and listen too.  Only then can we say that nuclear power is not a 20th – century dinosaur; but rather is a technological wonder able to produce the huge amounts of clean reliable energy required for the 21st century and beyond.

Note: This is one of a series of posts to engage in a healthy discussion on public acceptance and nuclear advocacy.  As we think about these issues we would like to point out an excellent book by Meredith Angwin, “Campaigning for Clean Air: Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy”. If you are at all interested in nuclear advocacy, this is a must read.




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?”?




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.

solar-panels-and-wind-turbines

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.

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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.

Environment

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.