Public discussions of nuclear power, and a surprising number of articles in peer-reviewed journals, are increasingly based on four notions unfounded in fact or logic: that
- variable renewable sources of electricity (windpower and photovoltaics) can provide little or no reliable electricity because they are not “baseload” -able to run all the time;
- those renewable sources require such enormous amounts of land, hundreds of times more than nuclear power does, that they’re environmentally unacceptable;
- all options, including nuclear power, are needed to combat climate change; and
- nuclear power’s economics matter little because governments must use it anyway to protect the climate.
These arguments are widely expressed and cross-cited by organizations and individuals advocating expansion of nuclear power. It’s therefore timely to subject them to closer scrutiny than they have received in most public media.
This review relies chiefly on five papers. [1-5] They document why expanding nuclear power is uneconomic, is unnecessary, is not undergoing the claimed renaissance in the global marketplace (because it fails the basic test of cost-effectiveness ever more robustly), and, most importantly, will reduce and retard climate protection. That’s because new nuclear power is so costly and slow that, based on empirical U.S. market data, it will save about 2–20 times less carbon per dollar, and about 20–40 times less carbon per year, than investing instead in the market winners - efficient use of electricity and what The Economist calls “micropower,” comprising distributed renewables (renewables with mass-produced units, i.e., those other than big hydro dams) and cogenerating electricity together with useful heat in factories and buildings.
These economic arguments are the core of any rational nuclear debate, because if nuclear power isn’t necessary, competitive, and effective at climate protection, then one needn’t debate its other attributes. Readers are therefore invited to explore the cited papers, starting with ref. 4.
Typically of such writings, alternatives to nuclear and coal power comprise only:
- energy efficiency -praised but quickly dismissed, without analysis, as insufficient by itself to replace all existing coal plants and all future developing-country power needs;
- solar thermal electric power (normally with overnight heat storage), mentioned but not analyzed despite its very large competitive potential; and
- windpower and photovoltaics, both rejected on the flawed bases described below.
Other than a mention of big hydro dams, the slate of climate alternatives arbitrarily excludes:
- all other renewables, even though dispatchable renewables (those operable whenever desired and with high technical reliability) -small hydro, geothermal, biomass/waste combustion, etc.- now have about the same global installed capacity as photovoltaics plus windpower, but greater annual output because they have higher capacity factors;
- cogeneration (combined-heat-and-power), which is larger today than distributed renewables, has vast further potential, and avoids or eliminates carbon emissions at similar or lower cost (it typically saves at least the normal fuel, carbon, and money); and
- fuel-switching, which could cheaply displace one-third of U.S. coal-fired power now.
The central issue is: What are nuclear power’s competitors? If the competitors can be artificially restricted to just coal and gas-fired plants, then at least coal, perhaps gas too, can be excluded on climate grounds, and gas perhaps also on price-volatility or supply-security grounds, so nuclear stands unchallenged. In this central-plants-only world, nuclear power will also be advantaged by carbon pricing. But if, as the data show, all three kinds of thermal power plants have been reduced in total to minority global market share and nuclear to just a few percent market share by smaller, more agile, and generally cheaper decentralized supply-side competitors (let alone by demand-side rivals), then those alternatives are real, are large, and have costs, speeds, and carbon consequences that must be compared with those of new nuclear plants. Moreover, these alternatives are equally advantaged (or largely so in the case of fueled cogeneration) by carbon pricing, which thus wouldn’t change nuclear power’s competitive disadvantage against them.
Nuclear advocates are eager to avoid head-to-head comparisons with these market winners, so they typically seek to exclude from consideration as unrealistic all non-nuclear alternatives to coal -typically by invoking one or more of the four myths listed on page one above. Before addressing those myths, it’s useful to offer energy efficiency as an example of why such arbitrary exclusions predetermine the outcome, rather in the way dictators can rig their reelection not by stuffing or miscounting the ballot boxes but simply by keeping their most formidable opponents off the ballot. The importance of the other excluded alternatives is similarly explored in refs. 1–5 and their citations.
Nuclear advocates often praise energy efficiency and agree it can do much more, but then drop it as an option by asserting that it “can’t replace all the coal-fired plants that have to be shut down, and it can’t generate power for the burgeoning energy demand of the growing economies in China, India, Africa, and Latin America.” This unanalyzed and undocumented claim is hard to reconcile with strong evidence left unmentioned, e.g.:
- If each of the United States used electricity as productively as the top ten states actually did in 2005 (adjusted for each state’s economic mix and climate), 62% of U.S. coal-fired electricity would become unnecessary. McKinsey found that by 2020, the U.S. could actually and very profitably save 1,080 TWh/y -half of today’s coal-fired generation.
- Late-1980s efficiency technologies, if systematically installed throughout the U.S. economy, could save ~75% of U.S. electricity (vs. the 50% made by coal-fired plants) at an average cost ~1¢/kWh (less than the operating cost of an existing coal or nuclear plant, even if the plant and grid were free); or, according to the U.S. utilities’ think-tank, could save ~40–60% at an average cost ~3¢/kWh (cheaper than the delivered price of existing coal-fired electricity). The difference between these two findings was largely methodological, not substantive.
- Today’s efficiency potential is even bigger and cheaper, both because efficiency technology keeps improving faster than it’s applied, and because we now know how to get expanding rather than diminishing returns to investments in energy efficiency -how to make large (often at least tenfold) energy savings cost less than small or no savings.
- Developing countries tend to have greater efficiency potential than developed countries.  They have a keener need to exploit this potential because they can ill afford such waste- especially of electricity, the most capital-intensive sector, whose production gobbles about one-fourth of global development capital. And they have a greater opportunity to become efficient, because they are building their infrastructure the first time, and it’s easier to build it right than fix it later. That’s why energy efficiency (both electric and direct-fuel) cut China’s energy demand growth by ~70% during 1980–2001. Since 2004, China’s top strategic goal for national development has been energy efficiency -now being vigorously implemented- because leaders like Wen Jiabao understand that otherwise China can’t afford to develop: energy supply will eat the capital budget.
It’s also fallacious to reject any single resource (efficiency, wind, solar, or whatever) because it can’t do the entire job. As nuclear advocates agree, energy needs a diverse portfolio, not a single “silver bullet.” Yet having arbitrarily rejected efficiency as unable to meet all global needs for displacing coal and powering economic development, they fail to count any lesser achievement that could stretch other alternatives’ contribution to the portfolio -unless it’s nuclear.
The “baseload” myth
Many times the most important and successful renewable sources of electricity are rejected for one key reason; it is not a baseload power. The definition of “baseload” power is often quoted as “the minimum amount of proven, consistent, around-the-clock, rain-or-shine power that utilities must supply to meet the demands of their millions of customers.” Thus it describes a pattern of aggregated  customer demand. Then asserting: “So far [baseload power] comes from only three sources: fossil fuels, hydro, and nuclear.” And explaining this dramatic leap from a description of demand to a restriction of supply: “Wind and solar, desirable as they are, aren’t part of baseload because they are intermittent -productive only when the wind blows or the sun shines. If some sort of massive energy storage is devised, then they can participate in baseload; without it, they remain supplemental, usually to gas-fired plants.”
That widely heard claim is fallacious. The manifest need for some amount of steady, reliable power is met by generating plants collectively, not individually. That is, reliability is a statistical attribute of all the plants on the grid combined. If steady 24/7 operation or operation at any desired moment were instead a required capability of each individual power plant, then the grid couldn’t meet modern needs, because no kind of power plant is perfectly reliable. For example, in the U.S. during 2003–07, coal capacity was shut down an average of 12.3% of the time (4.2% without warning); nuclear, 10.6% (2.5%); gas-fired, 11.8% (2.8%). Worldwide through 2008, nuclear units were unexpectedly unable to produce 6.4% of their energy output. This inherent intermittency of nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants requires many different plants to back each other up through the grid. This has been utility operators’ strategy for reliable supply throughout the industry’s history. Every utility operator knows that power plants provide energy to the grid, which serves load. The simplistic mental model of one plant serving one load is valid only on a very small desert island. The standard remedy for failed plants is other interconnected plants that are working -not “some sort of massive energy storage [not yet] devised.”
Modern solar and wind power are more technically reliable than coal and nuclear plants; their technical failure rates are typically around 1–2%. However, they are also variable resources because their output depends on local weather, forecastable days in advance with fair accuracy and an hour ahead with impressive precision. But their inherent variability can be managed by proper resource choice, siting, and operation.Weather affects different renewable resources differently; for example, storms are good for small hydro and often for windpower, while flat calm weather is bad for them but good for solar power. Weather is also different in different places: across a few hundred miles, windpower is scarcely correlated, so weather risks can be diversified. A Stanford study found that properly interconnecting at least ten windfarms can enable an average of one-third of their output to provide firm baseload power. Similarly, within each of the three power pools from Texas to the Canadian border, combining uncorrelated windfarm sites can reduce required wind capacity by more than half for the same firm output, thereby yielding fewer needed turbines, far fewer zero-output hours, and easier integration.
A broader assessment of reliability tends not to favor nuclear power. Of all 132 U.S. nuclear plants built -just over half of the 253 originally ordered- 21% were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems. Another 27% have completely failed for a year or more at least once. The surviving U.S. nuclear plants have lately averaged ~90% of their full-load full-time potential -a major improvement for which the industry deserves much credit- but they are still not fully dependable. Even reliably-running nuclear plants must shut down, on average, for ~39 days every ~17 months for refueling and maintenance. Unexpected failures occur too, shutting down upwards of a billion watts in milliseconds, often for weeks to months. Solar cells and windpower don’t fail so ungracefully.
Power plants can fail for reasons other than mechanical breakdown, and those reasons can affect many plants at once. As France and Japan have learned to their cost, heavily nuclear-dependent regions are particularly at risk because drought, earthquake, a serious safety problem, or a terrorist incident could close many plants simultaneously. And nuclear power plants have a unique further disadvantage: for neutron-physics reasons, they can’t quickly restart after an emergency shutdown, such as occurs automatically in a grid power failure. During the August 2003 Northeast blackout, nine perfectly operating U.S. nuclear units had to shut down. Twelve days of painfully slow restart later, their average capacity loss had exceeded 50%. For the first three days, just when they were most needed, their output was less than 3% of normal.
To cope with nuclear or fossil-fueled plants’ large-scale intermittency, utilities must install a ~15–20% “reserve margin” of extra capacity, some of which must be continuously fueled, spinning ready for instant use. This is as much a cost of “firming and integration” as is the corresponding cost for firming and integrating windpower or photovoltaic power so it’s dispatchable at any time. Such costs should be properly counted and compared for all generating resources. Such a comparison generally favors a diversified portfolio of many small units that fail at different times, for different reasons, and probably only a few at a time: diversity provides reliability even if individual units are not so dependable.
Reliability as experienced by the customer is what really matters, and here the advantage tilts decisively towards decentralized solutions, because ~98–99% of U.S. power failures originate in the grid. It’s therefore more reliable to bypass the grid by shifting to efficiently used, diverse, dispersed resources sited at or near the customer. This logic favors onsite photovoltaics, onsite cogeneration, and local renewables over, say, remote windfarms or thermal power plants, if complemented by efficient use, optional demand response, and an appropriate combination of local diversification and (if needed) local storage, although naturally the details are site-specific.
The big transmission lines that remote power sources rely upon to deliver their output to customers are also vulnerable to lightning, ice storms, rifle bullets, cyberattacks, and other interruptions. These vulnerabilities are so serious that the U.S. Defense Science Board has recommended that the Pentagon stop relying on grid power altogether. The bigger our power plants and power lines get, the more frequent and widespread regional blackouts will become. In general, nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants require transmission hauls at least as long as is typical of new windfarms, while solar potential is rather evenly distributed across the country.
For all these reasons, a diverse portfolio of distributed and especially renewable resources can make power supplies more reliable and resilient. Of course the weather-caused variability of windpower and photovoltaics must be managed, but this is done routinely at very modest cost. Thirteen recent U.S. utility studies show that “firming” variable renewables, even up to 31% of total generation, generally raises windpower’s costs by less than a half-cent per kWh, or a few percent. Without exception, ~200 international studies have found the same thing. Indeed, the latest analyses are suggesting that a well-diversified and well-forecasted mix of variable renewables, integrated with dispatchable renewables and with existing supply- and demand-side grid resources, will probably need less storage or backup than has already been installed to cope with the intermittence of large thermal power stations. Utilities need only apply the same techniques they already use to manage plant or powerline outages and variations in demand -but variations in renewable power output are more predictable than those normal fluctuations, which often renewables’ variations don’t augment but cancel. Thus, as the U.S. Department Energy pithily summarizes, “When wind is added to a utility system, no new backup is required to maintain system reliability.”
This is not just a computational finding but a practical reality. In 2008, five German states got 30–40% of their annual electricity from windpower -over 100% at windy times- and so do parts of Spain and Denmark, without reliability problems. Denmark is 20% windpowered today and aims for ~50–60% (the rest to come from low- or no-carbon cogeneration). Ireland, with an isolated small grid (~6.5 billion watts), plans to get 40% of its electricity from renewables, chiefly wind, by 2020 and 100% by 2035. Three 2009 studies found 29–40% British windpower practical. The Danish utility Dong plans in the next generation to switch from ~15% renewables (mainly wind) and ~85% fossil fuel (mainly coal and 5% nuclear) to the reverse. A German/Danish analysis found that diversifying supplies and linking grids across Europe and North Africa could yield 100% renewable electricity (70% windpowered) at or below today’s costs. Similar allrenewable scenarios are emerging for the United States and the world, even without efficiency.
Nonetheless often it is concluded that “wind power remains limited by intermittency to about 20 percent of capacity (so that 94 gigawatts [the global windpower capacity at the end of 2007] is four-fifths illusory), while nuclear plants run at over 90 percent capacity these days; and there still is no proven storage technology that would make wind a baseload provider.” That view has long been known to be unfounded. There is no 20% limit, in theory or in practice, for technical or reliability or economic reasons, in any grid yet studied. The “fourth-fifths illusory” remark also appears to reflect confusing an imaginary 20% limit on windpower’s share of electrical output with windpower’s capacity factor (how much of its full-time full-power output it actually produces). Anyhow, capacity factor averaged 35–37% for 2004–08 U.S. wind projects, is typically around 30–40% in good sites, and exceeds 50% in the best sites. Proven and costeffective bulk power storage is also available if needed.
Even if it were right that variability limits windpower’s potential contribution, that would be irrelevant to windpower’s climate-protecting ability. Grid operators normally dispatch power from the cheapest-to-run plants first (“merit order” or “economic dispatch”). Windpower’s operating cost is an order of magnitude below coal’s, because there’s no fuel -just minor operating and maintenance costs. Therefore, whenever the wind blows, wind turbines produce electricity, and coal (or sometimes gas) plants are correspondingly ramped down, saving carbon emissions. Coal makes 50% of U.S. electricity, so on the assumption of a much smaller (20%) windpower limit, windpower saves coal and money no matter when the wind blows. To put it even more simply, physics requires that electricity production and demand exactly balance at all times, so electricity sent out by a wind turbine must be matched by an equal decrease in output from another plant—normally the plant with highest operating cost, i.e. fossil-fueled.
Further layers of fallacy underlie the dismissal of solar power:* For photovoltaics (PVs) to become “a leading source of electricity” does not require numerous “breakthroughs, sustained over decades”; it requires only the sort of routine scaling and cost reduction that the similar semiconductor industry has already done. Just riding down the historic Moore’s-Law-like “experience curve” of higher volume and lower cost -a safe bet, since a threefold cost reduction across today’s PV value chain is already in view- makes PVs beat a new coal or nuclear plant within their respective lead times. That is, if you start building a coal, gas, or nuclear power plant and next door you start at the same time to build a solar power plant of equal annual output, then by the time the thermal plant is finished, the solar plant will be producing cheaper electricity, will deliver ~2.5x a coal plant’s onpeak output, will have enjoyed more favorable financing because it started producing revenue in year one, and will have been made by photovoltaic manufacturing capacity that can then reproduce the solar plant about every 20 months -so you’d be sorry if you’d built the thermal plant.
* Photovoltaics’ business case, unlike nuclear’s, needn’t depend on government subsidies or support. Well-designed photovoltaic retrofits are already cost-effective in many parts of the United States and of the world, especially when integrated with improved end-use efficiency and demand response and when financed over the long term like power plants, e.g., under the Power Purchase Agreements (see box) that many vendors now offer. PVs thrive in markets with little or no central-government subsidy, from Japan (2006–08) to rural Kenya, where electrifying households are as likely to buy them as to connect to the grid.
A Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is a legal contract between an electricity generator and a power purchaser. The power purchaser purchases energy, and sometimes also capacity and/or ancillary services, from the electricity generator. Such agreements play a key role in the financing of independently owned (i.e. not owned by a utility) electricity generating assets.
The PPA is often regarded as the central document in the development of independent electricity generating assets (power plants), and is a key to obtaining project financing for the project. Under the PPA model, the PPA provider would secure funding for the project, maintain and monitor the energy production, and sell the electricity to the host at a contractual price for the term of the contract. The term of a PPA generally lasts between 5 and 25 years. In some renewable energy contracts, the host has the option to purchase the generating equipment from the PPA provider at the end of the term, may renew the contract with different terms, or can request that the equipment be removed.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Photovoltaics are highly correlated with peak loads; they often exhibit 60% and sometimes 90% Effective Load Carrying Capacity (how much of their capacity can be counted on to help meet peak loads). PV capacity factors can also be considerably higher than assumed, especially with mounts that track towards the sun: modern one-axis trackers get ~0.25 in New Jersey or ~0.33–0.35 in sunny parts of California.
- Solar power, is often asserted, does not work well at the infrastructure level (i.e., in substantial installations feeding power to the grid; the largest installations in spring 2009 produced about 40–60 peak megawatts each). This will surprise the California utilities that recently ordered 850 megawatts of such installations, the firms whose reactor-scale PV farms are successfully beating California utilities’ posted utility price in 2009 auctions, the firms that are sustaining ~60–70% annual global growth in photovoltaic manufacturing, and their customers in at least 82 countries. Global installed PV capacity reached 15.2 GW in 2008, adding 5.95 GW (110% annual growth) of sales and 6.85 GW of manufacturing (the rest was in the pipeline). That’s more added capacity than the world nuclear industry has added in any year since 1996, and more added annual output than the world nuclear industry has added in any year since 2004. About 90% of the world’s PV capacity is grid-tied. Its operators think it works just fine.
The belief that solar and windpower can do little because of their variability is thus exactly backwards: these resources, properly used, can actually become major or even dominant ways to displace coal and provide stable, predictable, resilient, constant-price electricity. What, then, of the other main objection -that these renewable resources take up too much land?
The “footprint” myth
Land footprint seems an odd criterion for choosing energy systems: the amounts of land at issue are not large, because global renewable energy flows are so vast that only a tiny fraction of them need be captured. For example, economically exploitable wind resources, after excluding land with competing uses, are over twice total national electricity use in the U.S. and China; before land-use restrictions, the economic resource is over 6x total national electricity use in Britain, over 10x in the U.S., and 35x worldwide -all at 80-meter hub height, where there’s less energy than at the modern ≥100 m. Just the 300 GW of windpower now stuck in the U.S. interconnection queue could displace half of U.S. coal power.
Photovoltaics, counting just one-fifth of their extractable power over land to allow for poor or unavailable sites, could deliver over 150 times the world’s total 2005 electricity consumption. The sunlight falling on the Earth every ~70 minutes equals humankind’s entire annual energy use. An average square meter of land receives each year as much solar energy as a barrel of oil contains, and that solar energy is evenly distributed across the world within about twofold. The U.S., “an intense user of energy, has about 4,000 times more solar energy than its annual electricity use. This same number is about 10,000 worldwide[, so] …if only 1% of land area were used for PV, more than ten times the global energy could be produced….”
Nonetheless, if we assume that land-use is an important metric, a closer look reveals that the land-use argument is backwards.
Many quote novelist and author Gwyneth Cravens’s claim (in 'Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy', 2007) that “A nuclear plant producing 1,000 megawatts [peak, or ~900 megawatts average] takes up a third of a square mile.” But this direct plant footprint omits the owner-controlled exclusion zone (~1.9–3.1 mi2).  Including all site areas barred to other uses (except sometimes a public road or railway track), the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear cost guide says the nominal site needs 7 mi2, or 21x Cravens’s figure. She also omits the entire nuclear fuel cycle, whose first steps -mining, milling, and tailings disposal- disturb nearly 4 mi2 to produce that 1-GW plant’s uranium for 40 years using typical U.S. ores. Coal-mining to power the enrichment plant commits about another 22 mi2-y of land disturbance for coal mining, transport, and combustion, or an average (assuming full restoration afterwards) of 0.55 mi2 throughout the reactor’s 40-y operating life. Finally, the plant’s share of the Yucca Mountain spent-fuel repository (abandoned by DOE) plus its exclusion zone adds another 3 mi2. Though this sum is incomplete, clearly the quoted nuclear land-use figures are too low by more than 40-fold -or, according to an older calculation done by a leading nuclear advocate, by more than 120-fold.
This is strongly confirmed by a new, thorough, and authoritative assessment found after completing the foregoing bottom-up analysis. Scientists at the nuclear-centric Brookhaven National Laboratory and at Columbia University, using Argonne National Laboratory data and a standard lifecycle assessment tool, found that U.S. nuclear-system land use totals 119 m2/GWh, or for our nominal 1-GW plant over 40 y, 14.5 mi2 -virtually identical to the estimate of at least 14.3 mi2. Here’s their summary of “Land transformation during the nuclear-fuel cycle,” Fig. 1:
The land-use errors for renewables, however, are in the opposite direction. “A wind farm would have to cover over 200 square miles to obtain the same result [as the 1-GW nuclear plant], and a solar array over 50 square miles.” Conservation biologist and climate change researcher Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller University in New York claims  a land–use of 298 and 58 square miles respectively. Yet these windpower figures are ~100–1,000 x too high, because they include the undisturbed land between the turbines -~98–99+% of the site -which is typically used for cultivation, grazing, wildlife, or other uses (even solar collection) and is in no way occupied, transformed, or consumed by windpower. For example, the turbines that make 13% of Iowa’s electricity rise amidst farmland, often cropped right up to the base of each tower, though wind royalties are often more profitable than crops. Saying that wind turbines “use” the land between them is like saying that the lampposts in a parking lot have the same area as the parking lot: in fact, ~99% of its area remains available to drive, park, and walk in.
The area actually used by 900 average MW of windpower output -unavailable for other uses- is only ~0.2–2 mi2, not “over 200” or “298.” Further, as noted by Stanford’s top renewables expert, Professor Mark Jacobson, the key variable is whether there are permanent roads. Most of the infrastructure area, he notes, is temporary dirt roads that soon revegetate. Except in rugged or heavily vegetated terrain that needs maintained roads, the long-term footprint for the tower and foundation of a modern 5-MW tubular-tower turbine is only ~13–20 m2. That’s just ~0.005 mi2 of actual windpower footprint to produce 900 average MW; not ~50–100 x but 22,000 – 34,000 x smaller than the unused land that such turbines spread across. Depending on site and road details, therefore, Brand overstates windpower’s land-use by 2–4 orders of magnitude.
The photovoltaic land-use figures are also at least 3.3–3.9 x too high (or ≥4.3 x vs. an optimized system), apparently due to analytic errors. Moreover, ~90% of today’s photovoltaics are mounted not on the ground but on rooftops and over parking lots, using no extra land -yet ~90% are also tied to the grid. PVs on the world’s urban roofs alone could produce many times the world’s electricity consumption. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that:
In the United States, cities and residences cover about 140 million acres of land. We could supply every kilowatt-hour of our nation’s current electricity requirements simply by applying PV to 7% of this area -on roofs, on parking lots, along highway walls, on the sides of buildings, and in other dual-use scenarios. We wouldn’t have to appropriate a single acre of new land to make PV our primary energy source!… [I]nstead of our sun’s energy falling on shingles, concrete, and underused land, it would fall on PV- providing us with clean energy while leaving our landscape largely untouched.
and concludes: “Contrary to popular opinion, a world relying on PV would offer a landscape almost indistinguishable from the landscape we know today.” This would also bypass the fragile grid, greatly improving reliability and resilience.
Summarizing, then, the square miles of land area used to site and fuel a 1-GW nuclear plant at 90% capacity factor, vs. PV and wind systems with the same annual output, are:
Thus windpower is far less land-intensive than nuclear power; photovoltaics spread across land comparable to nuclear if mounted on the ground in average U.S. sites, but much or most of that land (shown in the table) can be shared with lifestock or wildlife, and PVs use no land if mounted on structures, as ~90% now are. Nuclear's “footprint” is thus the opposite of what is often claimed.
These comparisons don’t yet count the land needed to produce the materials to build these electricity supply systems—because doing so wouldn’t significantly change the results. Modern wind and PV systems are probably no more, and may be less, cement-, steel-, and other basicmaterials- intensive than nuclear systems—consistent both with their economic competitiveness and with how quickly their output repays the energy invested to make them. For example, a modern wind turbine, including transmission, has a lifecycle embodied-energy payback of under 7 months; PVs’ energy payback ranges from months to a few years (chiefly for their aluminum and glass housings); and adding indirect (via materials) to direct land-use increases PV systems’ land-use by only a few percent, just as it would for nuclear power according to the industry’s assessments. Indeed, a gram of silicon in amorphous solar cells, because they’re so thin and durable, produces more lifetime electricity than a gram of uranium does in a light-water reactor -so it’s not only nuclear materials, as nuclear proponents claim, that yield abundant energy from a small mass. Their risks and side-effects, however, are different. A nuclear bomb can be made from a lemon-sized piece of fissile uranium or plutonium, but not from any amount of silicon.
The “portfolio” myth
“…climate change is so serious a matter, we have to do everything simultaneously to head it off as much as we can.” This common view misinterprets the portfolio concept, which comes from financial economics. Investors combine multiple asset classes so that market conditions bad for one kind will be neutral or good for other kinds, improving overall risk/reward performance. But investors assemble financial portfolios judiciously, not indiscriminately. They don’t buy one of every kind of asset simply because it exists; some kinds are too costly or risky, and buying them would preclude buying more attractive ones. Diversified energy portfolios are similar: a balanced mix of options needn’t and generally shouldn’t include everything available.
There is no analytic basis for the assumption that all energy options are necessary, nor is sensible. It’s no good claiming we need all options just because one feels the climate problem is urgent; we have only so much money. The more urgent you think it is to protect the climate, the more important it is to spend each dollar to best effect by choosing the fastest and cheapest options -those that will displace most carbon soonest.
Nuclear expansion is about the least effective way to displace carbon (or achieve any of its other professed goals); the only reason one would choose it is to keep the dying nuclear industry alive as an “option.” But having failed to make its way in the market for a half-century, that “option” has become prohibitively costly, requiring continuous and increasingly heroic intensive-care interventions. In the U.S. it’s now so expensive that no nuclear plant can be built unless the taxpayers pick up all its cost or risk or both, because private investors are unwilling to hazard their own money. With a two-reactor plant costing well over US$10 billion, perhaps US$15+ billion, so even the biggest U.S. utility (Exelon) couldn’t finance one such project on its own balance sheet, the cost of such “options” doesn’t complement but devours its rivals. It consumes money, time, and attention better devoted to the solutions that buy ~2–20 times more carbon reduction per dollar and ~20–40 times more carbon reduction per year. These -efficiency and micropower- are the solutions that the global marketplace is overwhelmingly choosing in preference to nuclear power, where allowed to.
The “role of government” myth
A fourth reason for choosing nuclear power (p. 84) is “the role of government ….Energy policy is a matter of such scale, scope, speed, and patient follow-through that only a government can embrace it all. You can’t get decent grid power without decent government power.” That seemingly straightforward observation is far less clear in its implications.
Of course government policy sets the framework for the choices we all make as citizens and as market participants. Governments should steer, not row, and should steer in the right direction, which includes carbon pricing. One doesn't have to be a market fundamentalist who supposes that whatever markets choose (distorted as they often are by various heavy hands on the scales) is automatically right and wise: they chose lots of coal power when carbon emissions and land ruination were free, and they’ve often inhibited efficiency and renewables. But stronger, smarter, more coherent governance does not automatically favor nuclear power. It’s the other way around: nuclear power requires governments to mandate that it be built at public expense and without effective public participation -excluding by fiat, or crowding out by political allocation of huge capital sums, the competitors that otherwise flourish in a free market and a free society.
This might sound like an overblown characterization until one looks at “the French approach” to nuclear policy. As ref. 71 shows, French energy remains an island of hermetic policy in a sea of market reality: no meaningful public participation, no examination of open issues or new information, and a core strategy -unchanged, one is proudly told, under 14 Prime Ministers and five Presidents over 35 years- set and executed by an elite technocratic cadre unaccountable to anyone. That is what a large nuclear enterprise requires. Such authoritarian rules, as often heard, are also part of the “mobilization that is needed to deal with climate change.”
The notion that governments will ignore nuclear power’s economics and just buy it -rather as they fought World War II because they must, not because it was cost-effective- presupposes all the rest of the fallacious arguments that nuclear power is vital and desirable for climate protection. Recognize those fallacies, and the tautologous “role of government” argument collapses. However, if the argument was right, the political implications would be disturbing. The world then considered necessary to protect the climate is not a world of market economics and democracy. This view is consistent with the observation that virtually all nuclear orders come from authoritarian governments (or at least ones that allow scant public influence on energy choices) whose power sectors are well insulated from market forces. Markets and democracy can produce equal or better climate and energy solutions if allowed to. It is also preferable to live in that sort of society.
There’s another serious problem with the government-will-just-buy-nuclear assertion. France is commonly cited by nuclear advocates as the model of having done everything right in organizing and managing its nuclear program. Yet its unique and impressive achievements have not saved the French program from serious operational and financial stress, nor from major and continuing escalation in both real capital costs and construction times. Analyzing for the first time the long-secret official cost data on French nuclear construction recently revealed that during 1970–2000, French reactor-builders suffered ~3.5 x escalation in real capital cost per kilowatt, and in the 1990s, from major stretching of construction schedules. Thus the world’s best-organized and most dirigiste nuclear power program has not been immunized from bad economics.
Nuclear vs. competitors: market status and prospects
Lovin's 2008 conclusion was: “Nuclear power is continuing its decades-long collapse in the global marketplace because it’s grossly incompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete.” Let's repeat here an illustrative summary of the past three years’ nuclear vs. competing orders and installations worldwide. Observed global market behavior tells the story with striking clarity:
- By 2006, micropower was producing one-sixth of the world’s total electricity (slightly more than nuclear power), one-third of the world’s new electricity, and from one-sixth to more than half of all electricity in a dozen industrial countries -not including the badly lagging U.K. or U.S. (at ~7%), whose rules favor incumbents and their large plants.
- In 2006, nuclear power worldwide added 1.44 billion watts (about one big reactor’s worth) of net capacity -more than all of it from uprating old units, since retirements exceeded additions. But photovoltaics added more capacity than that in 2006; windpower, ten times more; micropower, 30–41 times more (depending on whether you include standby and peaking units). Micropower plus negawatts probably provided over half the world’s new electrical services. In China, the world’s most ambitious nuclear program ended 2006 with one-seventh the installed capacity of China’s distributed renewables, and was growing only one-seventh as fast.
- In 2007, the U.S., Spain, and China each added more wind capacity than the world added nuclear capacity, and the U.S. added more wind capacity than it added coal-fired capacity during 2003–07 inclusive. China beat its 2010 windpower target.
- In 2008, China doubled its windpower installations for the fourth year in a row and looked set to beat its 2020 windpower target in 2010. Windpower pulled ahead of gasfired capacity additions for the first year in the U.S. and the second year in the EU. For the first time in the nuclear era, no new nuclear plants came online worldwide: nuclear net capacity and output fell. (At 12 October 2009, no new nuclear unit had reportedly come online since August 2007 -in Romania, after 24 years’ construction.) Nuclear orders trickled in from centrally planned systems but not from markets, garnering only a few percent market share and ~4.4% of all global capacity under construction. In the U.S. from August 2005 to August 2008, with the most robust capital markets and nuclear politics in history, and despite new nuclear subsidies (on top of the old ones) rivaling or exceeding new nuclear plants’ total construction cost, not a penny of private equity was offered for any of the 9 “planned” or 24 “proposed” new units: their developers were happy to risk taxpayers’ money but not their own. Meanwhile, distributed renewables worldwide in 2008 added 40 GW from US$100 billion of investment. That plus ~US$40 billion for big hydro dams brought renewable power production, for the first time in about a century, more investment than the ~US$110 billion put into fossil-fueled power stations.
- The billions of watts (GW) of new wind, photovoltaic, and nuclear generating capacity added to the grid worldwide in each year during 1996–2008 are as follows (Fig. 2):
A few countries that centrally plan their power systems and socialize their costs do buy nuclear plants, some still in substantial numbers. What’s in dispute is whether that’s the exception or the new rule for the future world. Nuclear power can’t get far without having a business case in market economies too, because it is doubtful that most of the world’s economy will adopt a command-and-control energy economy. But some argue “Market forces cannot limit greenhouse gases. Governments have to take the lead. What they deem the atmosphere requires will be the prime driver of the economics of energy.” (Of course, carbon pricing, whether by carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, is a market mechanism instituted by governments to limit CO2 by correct the market failure of this unpriced major externality.)
They leap boldly to the supposition that the nuclear imperative they perceive should, must, and will override all economic, security, and other considerations and cause governments to mandate and finance nuclear construction.
Even if this logic held, the biggest centrally planned energy systems have their own fiscal and logistical limits that are coming into view. China has nearly one-third of all reactors under construction worldwide, with a 2020 nuclear target that was 30–40 GW in 2006 but was recently raised to 70 GW and then to ~80 GW. Clearly if anyone can build enough reactors quickly enough to matter, it’s China. Yet if the extraordinarily ambitious target of 80 GW in 2020 were achieved, it would offset only about one-fifth of the expected global retirements of nuclear plants meanwhile. This looks unlikely:
- Many analysts doubt that even China can build or finance 80 GW so quickly. Even if construction time shrank to 5.0 years from the first ten units’ 6.3 years, they’d all need to be under construction by 2015, i.e., in the next five years. In 2008, China had 8.4 GW of nuclear plants installed, making about 2% of her electricity and 0.8% of her primary energy. Only ~16 units have started construction in the past four years, leaving another 57 to start in the next five years -one a month. Even for China, that’s a big challenge.
- Precedent is no proof, but China’s 1985 nuclear target of 20 GW in 2000 was missed by tenfold; the 2009 capacity is still under 10 GW (less than windpower, though characteristically, official press releases still describe nuclear’s share numerically and all other non-big-hydro renewables’ larger share as trivial or negligible).
- By autumn 2009, China’s acceleration to 16 nuclear units (15 GW) officially under construction was raising questions about logistical and safety performance. Zhang Guobao, head of the National Energy Administration, warned of signs of “improper” and “too fast” nuclear development in some regions, and added, “We’d rather move slower and achieve less than incur potential safety concerns in terms of nuclear energy."
- Meanwhile, China is moving toward more transparent decisionmaking and more competitive capital allocation. Global experience suggests that neither trend bodes well for prolonged nuclear expansion.
- China’s electricity demand, dominated by energy-intensive and export-oriented basicmaterials industries, dipped in 2008 and is still recovering to 2007 levels. Power-plant construction has slackened. Tough efficiency standards and policies are also gaining momentum throughout the economy. So are many competitors. A modern natural-gas sector is emerging, and China believes it has at least half as much gas as coal, while some foreign experts think it has far more; it doesn’t matter, since the supergiant east Siberian fields will ultimately flow eastward. Chinese analysts are further starting to realize that new coal power is much costlier than meets the eye, especially due to its huge opportunity cost of bottlenecking the winter rail network.
- In striking contrast to central stations, China’s aggressively entrepreneurial, largely private-sector vendors of distributed generation seem much better able to meet their newly raised 2020 targets (including 150 GW of windpower and 20 GW of PVs) than nuclear power can. China is #1 in 5–6 renewable technologies and aims to be in all; it became #1 in PV-making in 2008 and should become #1 in wind-installing in 2009. Though windpower’s rapid scaling-up is subject to many mishaps -it’s lately outpaced both grid expansion and quality control- such glitches can be fixed much more easily in modular renewables than in unforgiving, monolithic nuclear construction projects. All the fast-and-cheap skills that China brings to thermal power plants apply in spades to windpower too, because its tractable unit size, quick manufacturing, and modularity can rapidly capture volume economies and learning effects. And a new Harvard/Tsinghua analysis confirms that available, suitable, windy Chinese sites can meet all China’s electrical needs—the total, not just the growth—cost-effectively through at least 2030.
The nuclear industry spreads the view renewables can’t be important because wind and PVs “aren’t baseload,” and dismiss or ignore the equally large dispatchable renewables, cogeneration, fuel-switching, or efficiency, so we think the only relevant comparison is nuclear vs. coal, and that nuclear power’s most potent actual competitors aren’t legitimate and scarcely matter. But the global power industry knows better. It is shifting massively, even in China, from coal to efficiency, cogeneration, and renewables.
Some believe climate and national-security pressures can work only through national policy, so governments will set prices and subsidies that will reverse or bypass the market’s trend toward micropower. But carbon pricing, though helpful (especially in the electricity sector because it will speed the shift away from coal), seems to me likely to exert less leverage on big energy investments than the underlying competition between efficiency and supply, or between central stations and micropower. A ~US$20/tCO2 carbon tax makes nuclear look ~2¢/kWh better vs. coal, or 1¢/kWh against gas, but it doesn’t help any of those three prevail against the zero-carbon efficiency, wind, and solar competitors that are rapidly grabbing the power market from all kinds of central thermal stations.
The only key sense in which governments matter to the nuclear choice is whether market economies will force taxpayers to buy lots of the nuclear plants that private investors refuse to finance. The U.S. has tried this since 2005, but no equity has been offered, so now the industry is trying to eliminate the legal requirement for it. If this succeeded on an extremely large scale -hard to imagine for both budgetary and political reasons, even if competitive logic were utterly abandoned- this might perhaps raise nuclear power’s market share from a few percent to nearer micropower’s tens-of-times-larger level. But the expenditures needed are so large that they would quickly exhaust both fiscal capacity and political tolerance, and vendors’ recent track record makes it doubtful that they could deliver. Therefore it is important to keep returning to nuclear power’s lack of a tenable business case -and its grave opportunity cost of reducing and retarding climate protection. These issues demand answers. Myths are not a responsible substitute.
Physicist Amory Lovins is cofounder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) and Chairman Emeritus of one of its five for-profit spinoffs (www.fiberforge.com), and has written 29 books and hundreds of papers.
Click here to see the full lists of references.