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I came across an article in the NY times a few days ago that makes for an interesting read. It relates to the slow gradual decline of the US nuclear power sector. I've never been in a US nuclear plant, but people whom I know who have (pro-nuclear mind) paint a bleak picture. We're talking scenes that would resemble the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Old antiquated machinery in dusty old buildings. Control rooms with clunky, ridiculously ancient control systems. Here and there they will see company name plates on machinery from a manufacturing company that they know had ceased to exist decades ago, kind of like the head stones in an industrial graveyard. And many of the staff in these plants, who work in offices and lunch rooms decorated in styles last popular back in the 60's, are ageing as rapidly as the plant they work in. Many are not far from the day they collect their bus pass and retire. Now my (again pro-nuclear) colleagues are keen to stress that they see no safety issue here as despite the age of machinery in such plants, though old (like those in the UK) these plants are maintained in implacable condition, floors often swept spotless sort of thing. Kind of like how the UK army still maintains a fleet ofÂ 1950's era "Green Goddess" fire engines in perfect working order, to be brought in if the firemen go on strike or in case there's a war. That said, other sources, such as the Associated Press point to situations where, for example a pump is leaking more than it should, so the safety standards are rewritten to put the pump (and thus the plant) back within spec. Suffice to say, many of America's nuclear plants are as it were "getting on a bit". Half are 30 years or more into a 40 original design life. As anyone who works in engineering will know there tends to be a critical point with any system as it ages, beyond which the maintenance costs and failure probabilities rapidly spikes, as many individual parts start hitting their natural service limit. Which given the fact they may have been made by a manufacturer who no longer has them in stock (or no longer exists!), makes replacing parts and keeping the plant going increasingly expensive. Sooner or later it becomes no longer economic to operate it. Many US nuclear plants may not be far off from this date. And the problem with that is that because the US essentially stopped building reactors for 30 years post TMI and Chernobyl, there is something of a "baby boom" time bomb ticking away, in which we could see many US nuclear plants closing down in the next decade or two, far quicker than replacement plants could ever be built. I've discussed for some time the problems faced by the UK nuclear sector and the near certainty that there will be a substantial "nuclear gap" during the next decade, given that all but a handful of UK nuclear reactors will be shutdown (potentially as low as a single LWR in Sizewell before any replacements are built (if indeed any new reactors are ever built in the UK). This is inevitable given the long lead times involved in the construction of nuclear reactors. Consider that the world's most modern in Olkiluoto in Finland has been under construction for 8 years and counting. Even if the US began building multiple plants now, it would be many decades before they could replace the present 100 odd US nuclear reactors, during the time before this existing nuclear fleet closes down. Currently there are just 5 nuclear construction projects active in the US, and one of those is a project mothballed a number of decades ago. Even if we could increase the build rate of nuclear reactors significantly, which would be difficult given the various bottlenecks in the nuclear supply chain and regulatory hurdles, who is going to operate these reactors? Like I said many of the US/UK's nuclear energy workers are as aging as rapidly as the plants they operate. We're talking about a need to train up a couple of tens of thousand people in the space of a decade or two both sides of the Atlantic. Consider that as far as I'm aware only a handful of UK universities actually offer a degree in nuclear engineering, and in many cases this is a sort of "top up" course to an existing physics or engineering course, which only a handful of students take. Who too is going to finance these reactors? The massive capital costs now associated with nuclear power, along with the fact that the nuclear industry has been "found out" by investment firms, means financial institutions have very little (if any) interest in funding such projects, unless the government is willing to advance a substantial subsidy (exceeding anything paid out to renewables, as current discussions surrounding Hinkley Point C in the UK make clear) to cover any potential losses. And in this "government sponsored" scenario, there's only so much cash a government can advance in these austere times. Nevermind the fact that many members of the public are opposed to nuclear power and certainly won't be happy with their taxes going to pay for it. Of course I'd counter by pointing to the Â£100 billion bill to clean up the UK's existing nuclear legacy, so you're sort of paying for it already! Mind the Gap Of course one has to query, given that "something else" will have to be build to fill the likely "nuclear gap" how economically sensible it would be to do that, operate said replacement (e.g. a IGCC unit) for a few years or decades and then decommission it (after only a fraction of its service life), while simultaneously paying the enormous costs that new nuclear build comes with on top of all of that. Inevitably one's suspicion is that while some new nuclear reactor construction is perhaps inevitable in the US (or UK) given the ideologically commitments to nuclear from those on the right (I'm convinced many on the right are merely in favour because many on the left are against it... maybe we should try reverse psychology!). But the chances are that only a small fraction of these reactors will actually be replaced (my guess? 2-4 reactors in the UK, probably a one to two dozen reactors in the US). Consequently there will be a substantial downsizing of the US and UK nuclear sector over the next few decades, to the point where it will become a minor contributor to both nation's grids. In short, to advocate even a like for like replacement of the world's existing nuclear capacity, nevermind the sort of megalomaniac scale expansion in global nuclear energy use its cheerleaders call for, is to advocate the logistically impossible. The fact is the vast bulk of the nuclear reactors in many countries will be shut down long before any replacement could conceivably be built. Assuming public opposition doesn't kill the industry like it has in Germany and Japan. Of course the fear for environmentalists is that this "something else" will be more coal or gas fired power stations. A very serious risk given the dangerous uncertainty and renewables bashing policies advanced by pro-nuclear advocates within the Republican or the Tory party. This is despite the fact that these days wind power is increasingly seen as an economically viable alternative. Worldwide there's now about 282 GW's of wind power installed and 100 GW's of solar power, which combined exceeds the scale of the global nuclear fleet (at 366 GW's and falling) nevermind the much larger contribution from hydroelectric and biomass (REN Status reports are always a good source of stat's in this regard). And before anyone starts giving out about "subsidies to renewables", the IEA recently reported that all subsidies to renewables are but a sixth of what we pay subsidizing the fossil fuel industry! The only sensible course of action for pro-nuclear types (such as Monbiot) but supposed environmentalists to do is accept this reality and advocate policies that ensure as much as possible of this looming "nuclear gap" is met by low carbon energy sources and not fossil fuels and quit flogging the already dead nuclear horse.
George Monbiot was celebrating "victory" the other week in a bet he alleges to have made with Jeremy Leggett of SolarCentury. Jeremy Leggett had claimed, that solar power would achieve grid parity by 2013. George Monbiot managed to get him to turn that into a bet though inevitably when George started getting all legal and turning it into some sort of personal vendetta Jeremy seems to have backed away. Anyway, Monbiot claims he won the bet by virtue of the fact that Solar PV hasn't achieved "grid parity". Of course that depends how you define "grid parity". Monbiot uses a straw man argument to suggest that "grid parity" means ""¦the point at which government support for a technology is no longer required". He claims this was the definition he was given by the DECC, although I've yet to see anything on the DECC website to substantiate this claim. My guess is he interviewed some press advisor for the DECC and asked him a loaded question which got the guy to say what Monbiot wanted to hear. Of course Monbiot perhaps missed the point that if we apply his definition for grid parity to other energy sources, very few if any energy sources are capable of achieving it. For example Monbiot has never been shy of his enthusiasm for Nuclear power, which he describes glowing terms as "UK's most viable sources of low-carbon electricity""¦.is it? Well not according to the BBC's business editor Robert Peston. As I pointed out on my blog sometime ago EDF energy have admitted that the subsidy they would need to make any new nuclear plants in the UK viable would require a strike price of at least Â£100 per MWh for 40 years, v's a price for onshore wind of Â£80 per MWh for 15 years (although its claimed as low as Â£65 or $98/MWh according to the EIA and Â£40 or $69/MWh according to the NREL) with offshore wind projected at a cost of Â£100/MWh by the 2020's (the earliest date any new reactor could be operational is 2022). So by Monbiot's own definition nuclear has failed to achieve "grid parity", indeed it falls below the overnight prices for wind energy, which makes his "UK's most viable source of low-carbon electricity" claim very hard to justify. But what about other energy sources? Have they achieved "grid parity"? Well not according to Monbiot's definition. I've just put up a post describing the tales of woe afflicting the UK coal industry. While foreign imported coal is certainly competitive (if we ignore the cost of all that pollution of course!), but UK mined coal is anything but. Government support is needed to keep the UK's coal mines working (the point of my article was to question why we'd want to spend public money a carbon intensive energy source), indeed its likely coal mining in the UK could be all but over within the next decade without significant state sponsored support. So certainly as far as UK coal is concerned, that isn't at a level of "grid parity" either. Indeed when we talk of fossil fuels one often forgets how much is spent, both directly or indirectly, subsidising them. As I've previously pointed out on my blog, of the energy subsidies worldwide much more is spent shoring up fossil fuel consumption, than on renewables. The whole idea of subsidising renewables (or nuclear) was always part of a messy compromise to get governments from having to enact unpopular policies that would have forced people to pay the true costs of our fossil fuel addiction. So Monbiot has managed to reveal the shadowy murkiness of the global energy industry, well no s%it Sherlock is all I can say! (how long have you been a environmental correspondent?) But going back to Jeremy Leggett grid parity comment. I suspect he was referring to solar PV achieving grid parity with other renewable resources by 2013. Indeed as Leggett himself points out in his response "...the cost of solar power has fallen by 60% in the last 3 years while nuclear's costs have gone up by 70%". While PV isn't quite there yet, at least as far as the UK is concerned, it's certainly achieved grid parity in other sunnier climates (....could someone let Monbiot know he owes Jeremy Leggett Â£100 ;o ) and its expected to achieve as much in the US within a window of 2014-2017. So while perhaps one accuse Jeremy Leggett in letting his enthusiasm for solar PV getting the better of him, but one can certainly understand where that enthusiasm is coming from. If you'd asked me ten years ago how much electricity we could get from solar PV, I'd have thought getting 34 GW's installed capacity from a less than sunny country like Germany was wishful thinking. Any hope for bulk electricity generation from solar I would have argued would only be achieved using solar CSP (Concentrating Solar Power), a technology neither the UK nor Germany has an ideal climate for. Now I would have covered myself by throwing in the caveat that it's always difficult to judge the pace at which any technology will mature (I'd have probably also laughed at the suggestion you could cram 1Terrabyte into a laptop hard drive) and I'd have pointed to theoretical studies which suggested solar panels could be made much more efficient and produced more cheaply"¦.at least "in theory". However, even I have to admit that the performance and growth of solar PV has exceeded all expectations. According to the latest REN global status report 29 GW's of solar PV was added in 2011-2012 for a total installed capacity of 100 GW's of PV (around 103 GW's of renewables was installed worldwide in the same period according to the REN 21 report, for a total capacity of not far off half a terrawatt). Meanwhile nuclear power (which Monbiot favours), according to the IAEA grew by just 4 GW's, although this figure has to be put in the context of a significant decline in nuclear power output over the last few decades. And the fact that many of the world's nuclear plants are ageing and likely in need of replacement (average age of reactors worldwide is about 28 years) and its questionable if global capacity can increase significantly while such "turn over" is being undertaken. Indeed the IAEA report I've cited above, suggests a rate of installation per year of just 6.65 GW/yr between 2010 and 2030, less than a quarter the current installation rate for solar PV and just 1/15th the current installation rate of renewables as a whole. As far as the UK is concerned, despite the Tories attempts to derail the solar industry with cuts to the subsidies, approximately 8 MW's worth of PV is being installed in the UK every week, or about 400-450 MW per year. In March the total installed capacity of PV in the UK stood at 2.5 GW's in March 2013. By contrast the UK's nuclear fleet is in a state of terminal decline and even those who are pro-nuclear seem to accept the fact that new facilities cannot be built before all but one (or possibly two) of the UK's current fleet is shut down. Of course everything is far from rosy in the renewables garden. Personally, while I reckon PV has a role to play in the UK's grid (if the Germans can get 34 GW's from a few roof tops, we'd be fools not to try and do the same), I would still prioritise technologies such as wind and biomass, as well as offshore energy (notably tidal power), as they are better suited to our climate. Also as I've pointed out in prior posts, only about 20% of the UK's energy demand is electricity. The rest is a mixture of heat demand (which tends to hit for a few months in winter) and transportation fuel (cars, buses, trains, planes, etc.). Given the large daily and seasonal fluctuations in demand from these two, energy storage facilities are a key priority (and of course nuclear hits the some problem here as renewables, the need to "bunker" energy to deal with such fluctuations in demand). Indeed PV is now at the centre of a trade dispute between the EU and China over subsidies to their respective solar industries. Of course, I'd argue that clearly the EU and China would only be taking this matter up at the WTO if they thought PV has a future, i.e. that if it hasn't achieved grid parity yet its going to do so at some point. So again, while I tend to agree there are limits to what can be achieved with PV, credit has to be given where it is due. Monbiot can nitpick all he likes but far more low carbon capacity has been added to the UK energy grid from PV than the nuclear energy he favours. Indeed with a Â£70 billion clean up bill for existing waste stockpile and at least Â£7 billion a pop for new reactors, its questionable how much, if any of the UK's future energy capacity can be sourced from nuclear.