Debates about which energy source is better for the environment usually end with the conclusion that green energy sources are not efficient enough, that they do not provide enough energy returned on energy invested (EROIE) and that nuclear energy is much better.
This post is dedicated to nuclear energy and its real cost. If you find anything wrong with my calculations, please comment.
The host of “Fully Charged,” Robert Llewellyn, recently pointed out some of these issues in his video titled “Hinkley Point C - Oh Deary Me”
So, let’s revisit a few points Robert mentioned in his video and a few more things of interest:
- Nuclear power plants all over the world delivered multiple terawatts of electricity with very low CO2. And, that is true, even before we had a hint that we would mess with Earth’s climate, we were generating “green” electric energy. Since 1954, when the world's first nuclear power station started operating in the Soviet city of Obninsk, we have generated large amounts of electricity from nuclear sources. However, the reason for this is rather sinister: at that time, nuclear reactors were built largely because of the process or enrichment necessary for development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. In some twisted way, energy was almost a "byproduct".
There are hundreds of power plants in the world with very high safety records. To be precise, as of May 2016, 30 countries worldwide are operating 444 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 63 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries.*1
It is necessary to mention that, out of those 444 operational nuclear power plants, more than half are more than 30 years old, and, out of that number, more than 80 of them are over 40 years old. Currently, the oldest operational nuclear power plant in the world is at Oyster Creek *14 in the United States (636 MWe); it came online on December 1, 1969 and is scheduled to be shut down permanently by December 31, 2019, which will give it an operational life of 50 years. From the risk and safety perspective, having so many old nuclear power plants can be a challenge.*2
There have been only 3 disasters (Three Miles Island in America, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Fukushima in Japan) in 60 years. Relatively-speaking, nuclear energy is safer than coal mining, where tens of thousands of lives were lost and enormous CO2 emission has created a huge impact on our climate.
This is a rather frequent argument, similar to the one above, stating that nuclear energy is safer than riding a bicycle. And it is true that the number of direct, immediate deaths is much larger in cycling accidents than of those in nuclear disasters.
However, the difference is that a cycling accident, when it happens, will not affect other people; it will affect only the person who rides the bicycle, whereas, if a nuclear disaster happens, it will affect thousands of people and they will not have any choice. Furthermore, regarding damage, when someone rides a bicycle, only those involved in the accident are affected.
In the case of Chernobyl and Fukushima, material damage was total; the exclusion zone for Chernobyl is 2,600 km² and the Fukushima exclusion is around 1500 km². In both cases, more than 400,000 people were permanently evacuated from the areas. Just in Chernobyl, the death toll was set to 4,000, counting only those who were most exposed to radiation, but the 2006 TORCH report, commissioned by the European Greens political party, estimates 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths. Ukrainian officials estimated the area would not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years. *18
At the time of the disaster, Chernobyl was just 9 years old and Fukushima Daiichi was more than 40 years old.
The current price to build “Hinkley Point C” is £18 billion, and it will only grow.
Now, this is a rather interesting point to discuss: the cost of large projects — as shown in the example of Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 and the French version Flamanville — usually doubles or triples along the way. Nearly everything resembles The Knick episode "You're No Rose," in which Mr. Barrow explains his elaborate scheme to the Polish construction contractor.
Another disadvantage is that large projects require time and usually finish behind schedule, so the question is what is going to happen with the price of other energy sources — especially solar, that is currently in a “price free fall” — 12 years from now (2028).
Also, it is worth mentioning that, with renewable technologies, it is possible to connect every panel or windmill as you install them; as soon as they are in place, they will start generating electricity, and there is no need to wait until 2028 to connect all at once. With solar for instance, after 12 years you would have a head start of at least 72 TWh (terawatt-hours) of energy (2000 sunny hours per year * 12 years * 3Gwh).
Life expectancy and waste.
These are the most overlooked arguments about nuclear energy, and here is why: First, let’s compare how nuclear energy compares against renewables in terms of energy returned on energy invested (EROIE).
We find that, for Photovoltaic’s, that return is 7 times, for wind energy 18 times, and for nuclear — depending whether the source is for or against nuclear energy — the number can range from 10 all the way to 90 times of energy invested.
In terms of financial investment, the numbers look like this:
365 days in year 24 hours in day 70 years operational 3,000,000,000 wh (3Gwh) 1,839,600,000,000,000 wh (Output for 70 years) 1,000,000 (Mega) 92.50 £ per MWh £18,000,000,000.00 Cost to build £170,163,000,000.00 Yield 9.4535 times return ? but...
For this calculation, I have taken a life expectancy of 70 years, although many sources are saying that the maximum life expectancy should be between 40-50 years, after which a power plant must be decommissioned.*13
Pretty nice, isn’t it? The calculation says that the yield is almost 9.5 times larger than what is invested, or 950% of return. But, wait a minute, because we have not calculated a few things!
We have not calculated operational expenses, maintenance, and labor. At the end, we have not calculated in the biggest issue of all: waste management.
Robert has mentioned Sellafield as UK’s nuclear waste management facility in Cumbria, which accounts for 75% of all nuclear waste management in UK. Since it was opened 60 years ago, the operational costs of this facility have already exceeded £70 billion*7, and the NDA report says this cost will increase to an additional £115 billion, spread over the next 120 years, but that is an “optimistic” estimate *8 *9. Currently, the UK has a nuclear potential of 9Gwh; we can estimate that the rough cost of waste management per year is ((0.75 * 9) = 6.75Gwh, £115 billion/120years = £0.96 billion a year => £0.96by/6.75Gwh = £142 million per Gwh per year to manage nuclear waste. In the case of “Hinkley Point C” (with 3Gwh), that would be £426 million per year.
The most optimistic estimate of nuclear waste management I have seen says that “most of the waste from this process will require a storage time of less than 300 years. Finally, less than 1% is radioactive for 10,000 years. This portion is not much more radioactive than some things found in nature, and can be easily shielded to protect humans and wildlife. “*4
Although the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) authority states that transuranic wastes (sometimes called TRU) account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after 1,000 years and that just one of the byproducts (Plutonium-239) has a half-life of 24,000 years, I will still go with this minimum storage time of 300 years.*11
Initial Cost £18,000,000,000.00 Final Cost (1.5x) £27,000,000,000.00 Total Yield £170,163,000,000.00 Difference £143,163,000,000.00 min storage years 300 cost per year £426,000,000.00 300 years waste cost £127,800,000,000.00 NET (Diff - 300y waste) £15,363,000,000.00
Now, if you remember, we said that the total output of the “Hinkley Point C” should be around 1,839,600,000 Mwh after 70 years, which will cost £42,016,464,000.00 — leaving the United Kingdom in debt of £26 billion.
NET £15,363,000,000.00 Mwh 1,839,600,000 op. cost £22.84 £42,016,464,000.00 Total: -£26,653,464,000.00
As it can be seen, although we calculated everything optimistically, a nuclear power plant will start creating massive debt for tax payers after 240 years (a long time after it is decommissioned), and it will continue creating debt each fallowing year, for the next 1,000 or more years, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Our only hope is that, along the way, we will find some method for solving the issue permanently.
Now, the question is how, in our right minds, could we allow this to happen, and how is it possible for nuclear power plants to exist? Let me give you a plausible (wink-wink) scenario:
Fred: “Hey, Mike, this nuclear power investment of yours will start creating debts after 200 years.”
Mike: “So what?”
Fred: “What do you mean? You will start losing money!”
Mike: “Why, should I care about that, Fred?” – he said with a big grin on his face – “I am rich now, and, I will be a long gone by then. Let’s enjoy life now…”
When focusing on short-term gains, partly because of our own mortality — and due to a lack of care for others and especially for future generations — it is possible to ignore the real costs and environmental impact and build similar, or even worse, projects.
There are a few more things we have not mentioned:
The way we burn nuclear fuel in a majority of our power plants is extremely inefficient; used fuel still contains about 96% of its original uranium, of which the fissionable U-235 content has been reduced to less than 1%. Although we recycle that fuel, the overall process is extremely inefficient.*16
Furthermore, Uranium is a very rare element. Steve Fetter, Dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, said that reactors could run for the next 200 years at current rates of consumption.*5
If Uranium is such a rare element, maybe we should keep it, until we find a better use for it?
With all this in mind, the biggest question is whether we should use nuclear fission reactors at all.
In the past, we did not have much of a choice. If we had not done it, the effects of climate change now would be even more severe than what we are experiencing. I am not saying that it is not bad now, I am just saying that, in some bizarre way, if we had not used those nuclear power plants, it could have been even worse — much worse.
Now, should we use them in the future?
Not in the current form. They are largely inefficient, create too much waste, and they will be that dog that will bite us in a hundred years or so, and it will continue to gnaw on our legs for many years after, unless we invent some clever way to transmute radioactive elements in a cost-effective way and make them less harmful.
But, there is a new class of “Dual Fluid Molten salt nuclear Thorium reactors” that have an amazing estimated EROI of 2,000 (20 times more than any currently-existing source), they are much smaller to build, much cheaper, with many saying that they are almost 100% safe — in case of a disaster, the reactor would just stop working without any side effects. From a Thorium reactor, nuclear waste is 1,000 to 10,000 times smaller than what is produced with uranium reactors, and the radioactive waste will last for only 500 years, instead of 10,000 years. What is significant about them is that is not possible to repurpose Thorium fuel to make weapons. As Thorium is three more times abundant than Uranium and can be burned more efficiently than Uranium, current deposits can last for a very long time.
In conclusion, green energy sources are becoming cheaper and more available every day; they are becoming more efficient and more competitive than coal or oil. They are easy to scale, from very small household sizes to large power plants, they have relatively good EROI, and there is no any long-term threat or danger for our great-grandchildren from these sources.
Having all that in mind, we should start replacing all our dirty energy sources with green ones, beginning with coal and oil; when we finish there, we should replace nuclear, as well, limiting energy production to sources that cannot create another Chernobyl or Fukushima.
But, we should not stop our research of nuclear energy. If we want to get to the stars, and I personally think that stars are our destiny, we need to continue exploring all possible options to generate energy in large quantities.