Nuclear Power is not the answer

By 23 June 2024July 6th, 2024No Comments

Nuclear Power is not the answer

Chris Thompson

Nuclear power for Australia is in the news. I don’t fear nuclear power. Statistically speaking, adverse health outcomes are much less likely for people living close to a nuclear power station than, say, a coal mine or power station – or even cooking with gas. Nuclear power is almost always available. So, what is the problem?

Look no further than cost. The average wholesale price of electricity in Victoria for 2023 was $100/MWh (high gas prices) and $60/MWh so far in 2024. Renewable subsidies make up about 6% of the consumer cost of electricity. Keep this in mind when I discuss nuclear power in the UK. Experts tell us that nuclear power is the most expensive way of generating power. We can also look overseas, the UK for example.

The UK has 9 operating reactors, which provide about 15% of demand. A new power station is currently being constructed at Hinkley Point. This was announced in 2010, licenced in 2012, approved in 2016 and the first stage hoped to be finished by 2031 for a cost of $88B.

The UK government is required to subsidise when the wholesale price is less than $176/MWh for the next 35 years – a 66% subsidy. The government wears the cost of decommissioning existing shutdown plants (none have been decommissioned) presently estimated to cost $231B (UK decommissioning authority) and be completed by 2120.

And then there is the cost of storage of waste, which again the government is expected to handle. There is currently no high-level waste disposal site operating in the UK and no estimate of cost of maintaining it for the thousands of years required. Oh, I forgot about insurance. Yes, companies do pay for insurance, but if a payout exceeds a few dollars then the government carries the can as is happening in Japan with Fukushima (currently $95B paid to TEPCO – Nikkei Asia). Nuclear is not cheap in the UK.

The less said about Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) the better – but I can’t help myself. The first idea was NuScale. The investors could not see how it would be cost competitive and stopped financing it. Rolls Royce was talked about and then discarded when the project was put on hold. Now we are told that Westinghouse is it. The same Westinghouse that went bankrupt, caused by nuclear cost overruns, and now owned by Brookfield. SMRs may be useful but don’t exist.

I also forgot that every other country in the world is, apparently, madly installing nuclear. Not every country is fortunate enough to have a plentiful source of renewable energy. So, some countries will find nuclear useful – or even essential. However, if we now look to the USA ,the energy supplied by nuclear is the same today as it was in 1990. China is increasing nuclear capacity – but renewable generation is much higher and increasing at a much greater rate.

Let’s talk about ‘baseload’ – the constant minimum power demand. But baseload is the last thing we need in a modern electrical system. Nuclear is very good at baseload, but poor where demand changes dramatically at the end of the day. As I write, this demand has varied from 5 GW to 8.4 GW. Batteries are perfect for this. In France nuclear had to be shut down in summer because their output could not be lowered to supply the reduced demand.

Nuclear power generation is clearly unsuitable for Australia. You would have to wonder why it is proposed. I’d trust an expert more than a politician wanting to be elected.

I’m a retired electrical engineer having worked in computing and communications for most of my working life. I spent some time at CSIRO in Computing Research, where people really did have expertise, and also in private industry.

Top image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay