A damning chart by Arnulf Grubler of IIASA in Austria, via Joe Romm:
Figure 13: Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed
Remember that the French nuclear programme had the most favourable institutional and political environment imaginable – a centralised polity, a stable political consensus administered by a technically-trained élite, a single capable purchaser insisting on maximum standardisation – and costs still went up.
Why the negative learning curve? Grubler and Romm have good ideas. They think that as you gain experience with building reactors, you discover more ways things can go wrong, so you add a layer of complexity, which later on leads to more problems, and so on. I’d add that as you make reactors more complex, you increase the amount of highly skilled engineering, management, regulatory, and political labour required.
While the nuclear industry is often quick to point at public opposition and regulatory uncertainty as reasons for real cost escalation, it may be more productive to start asking whether these trends are not intrinsic to the very nature of the technology itself: large-scale, lumpy, and requiring a formidable ability to manage complexity in both construction and operation. These intrinsic characteristics of the technology limit essentially all classical mechanisms of cost improvements – standardization, large series, and a large number of quasi-identical experiences that can lead to technological learning and ultimate cost reductions – except one: increases in unit size, i.e., economies of scale.
Anyway you don’t need an explanation to know that the chart dooms nuclear energy. Nobody can afford a technology of increasing costs. The free market understood this long ago, and nuclear power is still only kept afloat by generous subsidy and public guarantees of long-tail liabilities like waste disposal.
The latest corporation still active in in the sector to head for the door is the behemoth Siemens, which built all 17 reactors of Germany’s nuclear park. They pitch the decision as a response to German public opinion and Merkel’s decision to denuclearize German power, but it’s surely a heart a commercial one: their renewables business is the company’s fastest growing sector, and you put your effort where the money is.
I’m sure that some commenters on this blog will let engineering romanticism override their libertarian principles and say that nuclear power has been killed by over-regulation rather than its own weaknesses. Basically, a fusspot public that will not weigh the risks correctly. Naval marine nuclear reactors don’t seem to have the same problems, because navies accept the higher risks. That may be so, but the fusspot public is the sovereign people, and it really, really does not like very nasty radiation accidents from installations that have repeatedly been described as safe, safe, safe. If the industry had been honest and said from the outset “these is no such thing as completely safe, every machine or drug that works is dangerous, life is all trade-offs”, things might have been different. But it did not; and will die by its lies.
I do not see this as good news. Denuclearization requires a huge investment in renewables just to tread water on carbon emissions. Without nuclear, it’s harder to guarantee carbon-free electricity supplies to deal with the variability of wind and solar. On the other hand, closing the chapter releases scarce technical and managerial resources to concentrate on stuff that works: a learning curve requires people to learn. Not to mention risk capital, though not much has being going nuclear’s way recently.
Question: is there any reason to think that Grubler’s problem won’t apply to fusion, when ITER finally gets it to work?
A lot more effort should be going into geothermal. Here is some rock music recorded deep under
Khazad-dûm the hot-dry-rock pilot plant at Soultz in Alsace, as supercritical hot water under high pressure cracks the granite.