From Beijing and London to Tokyo and Washington, energy bureaucracies have for decades been pervaded by nuclear enthusiasm. The past few years, for the first time in history, also saw most major governments led by advocates of nuclear energy. The media are saturated with a skilled, intensive, and effective advocacy campaign by the nuclear energy industry and its powerful allies. With disinformation increasingly prevalent and wholly counterfactual accounts of nuclear power’s status and competitive landscape widely believed by otherwise sensible people, this report’s objective assessment is vital to informed discourse and prudent choice.
The facts disclosed here, stated correctly and cited carefully to reputable sources, unravel the dense curtain of myths surrounding this deeply troubled industry. Readers may be surprised to learn, for example, that every nuclear power plant under construction in the world was chosen by central planners: not one was a free-market purchase fairly competed against or compared with alternatives.
By contrast, renewable electricity generators rule the marketplace, providing half the world’s new generating capacity in 2008–09. But while wind power and solar energy boom, nuclear and coal-plant orders wither. Their cost and risk dissuade investors. Any new U.S. nuclear plants are 100-percent subsidized and more, but even in the three pre-crash years starting in August 2005, with the strongest capital markets, political support, and public acceptance in history, they couldn’t raise a penny of private capital (nor have they since) because they have no business case. Moreover, they have four daunting risks:
First, an accident can swiftly transform a multi-billion dollar generating asset into a larger cleanup liability. The Fukushima accident has just vaporized the balance sheet of the world’s #4 power company, TEPCO. A 2007 earthquake had cost the company perhaps $20 billion; this one could cost it $100-plus billion. TEPCO is now broke and is becoming, in whatever form, a ward of the state. And with such an unforgiving technology, accidents anywhere are accidents everywhere. This report documents how events at Fukushima, even if they don’t get worse, are sending widening shockwaves through the energy and financial communities, and undermining the industry’s credibility.
Second, efficient use of electricity, which is already flattening industrialized countries’ demand and slackening global demand, is getting ever bigger and cheaper. Integrative design is even turning diminishing returns into expanding returns, making big savings cheaper than small ones. Efficiency is rapidly spreading to developing countries and indeed becoming a core element of national strategy: “Negawatts” are China’s top development priority.
Third, atrophied skills, overstretched supply chains, and sheer complexity keep nuclear capital costs soaring. The threefold cost overruns of the previous U.S. nuclear binge devastated utilities’ balance sheets: only 41 percent of ordered plants were built and survive. In the past five years, the estimated capital cost for new reactors rose three- to eightfold, mainly because initial “variable-cost” estimates gave way to firm- or fixed-cost commercial proposals that were many-fold higher because the vendor bore some or all of the price risk.
No country has demonstrated a nuclear learning curve. Even France’s last plant was 3.5 times costlier and nearly twofold slower than its first.
Finally, innovation and mass production, not giant units, are making nuclear power’s renewable competitors inexorably cheaper—wind turbines by one-fifth since 2007 (they now beat new nuclear costs by two- to threefold) and solar energy by half. In spring 2009, a standard crystalline-silicon photovoltaic (PV) module cost $4.20 per peak watt, today it is $1.70; its forward pricing is $1.35 for the end of 2011 and $1.00 for mid-2012. (The other half of today’s utility-scale PV installations, the M. Schneider, A. Froggatt, S. Thomas World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-2011 non-module “balance of system” cost, is also in the process of being halved.) No wonder “micropower”— CHP (cogeneration) plus renewables minus large hydropower—generated about 91 percent of the world’s new electricity in 2008.
In 2010, all renewables excluding large hydro received $151 billion of global private investment (nuclear got none) and surpassed nuclear power’s total global installed capacity. Within a few years, they will exceed its output. Just new solar power that is buildable sooner than one new reactor would outproduce and outcompete all 64 reactors that are currently under construction. The renewable revolution already happened—yet the nuclear industry still doesn’t even acknowledge renewables as a realistic competitor, claiming that wind power and solar power’s variability disqualify these burgeoning sources as unreliable. Just the opposite is true: they actually improve energy security and reliability more than nuclear power ever could.
All power plants fail. When nuclear or coal plants fail—6–7 percent of the time without warning and another 4–7 percent predictably—a billion watts vanish in milliseconds, often for weeks or months.
Physics makes suddenly stopped nuclear plants particularly hard to restart: when nine plunged from 100 percent to 0 percent output in the U.S. Northeast’s blackout of 2003, they were idled for days and took two weeks to restore fully. Fortunately, utility engineers have cleverly designed the grid so all these intermittent (unpredictably failing) power stations back each other up. Variable renewables can do the same but fail more gracefully. Achieving equal or better reliability even with 80–90 percent variable renewables takes five steps: Diversify wind farm and solar energy by location (seeing different weather) and by type (responding differently); forecast them; add other renewables that are dispatchable at need (small hydro, geothermal energy, biomass/waste, solar-thermal-electric, etc); and integrate them with flexible demand and supply.
Four German states’ 2010 electricity was thus 43–52 percent powered by wind power. Denmark is one-fifth wind powered and has Europe’s most reliable electricity at its lowest pretax prices.
Just as computing no longer needs mainframes, electricity no longer needs giant power plants. A diverse portfolio of mass-produced generators networked in microgrids can be as resilient as the Internet, so the Pentagon prefers them. Onsite and local generation even bypass the 98–99 percent of power failures that originate in the grid.
As shown in detail in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire (Chelsea Green, autumn 2011), nuclear power is neither economic nor necessary to eliminate U.S. use of oil and coal (and reduce natural gas use) by 2050, led by business for profit, without carbon pricing or new national laws.
Yet it is now China, not America or Europe, that leads the global revolution in renewable energy. China is now #1 in five renewable technologies and aims to be in all. Thanks to private enterprise, China passed its 2020 wind power target in 2010, and India has more wind farm power than nuclear power.
China’s 2006 renewables (excluding large hydro) had seven times nuclear’s capacity and were growing sevenfold faster; by 2010 that gap had widened despite the world’s most ambitious nuclear program.
The facts documented in this report make crystal clear that long before Fukushima, nuclear power was dying of an incurable attack of market forces. The industry had long ago created the mythology that only the 1979 Three Mile Island accident halted previous U.S. nuclear orders; in fact, they’d ceased more than a year earlier. No doubt the next myth will be that Fukushima halted nuclear power’s renaissance. Readers of this report will find that the renaissance itself had already fizzled over the several preceding years.
Nuclear power’s latest failure to thrive despite the most lavish and ever-increasing taxpayer support is actually an unequivocal blessing. For four decades we have known that modern energy systems could threaten civilization in two ways—climate change and nuclear proliferation—so we must reject both fates, not trade one for the other. Yet new nuclear build worsens both problems. It provides do-ityourself bomb kits in civilian disguise. It reduces and retards climate protection by saving 2–10 times less carbon per dollar—and 20–40 times more slowly—than the superior low- and no-carbon competitors that are soundly beating it in the global marketplace.
But taking economics seriously and buying those cheaper options instead can protect climate, peace, and profits. Since new nuclear build is uneconomic and unnecessary, we needn’t debate whether it’s also proliferative and dangerous. In a world of fallible and malicious people and imperfect institutions, it’s actually both. But even after 60 years of immense subsidies and devoted effort, nuclear power still can’t clear the first two hurdles: competitiveness and need. End of story.
Amory B. Lovins, Old Snowmass, Colorado, U.S.A. Physicist Amory B. Lovins is Chairman and Chief Scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) and an advisor to major firms and governments worldwide. This Foreword is adapted from an essay first published online by The Economist in April 2011.