Nuclear costs and build time (second response to criticism of our book)

In the last 8 years in the UK since Tony Blair decided we needed new nuclear power stations almost nothing has happened, except company after company has pulled out of the consortia to build them. This leaves EDF with possibly the Chinese the only consortium left to construct pressurised water reactors (PWR), although according to Tim Yeo interviewed on the BBC radio 4 today programme within the last week even this is teetering on collapse. Centrica was the last company to pull out and they cited costs as the reason. At the same time the cost of renewables has plunged. The table below shows some data from a government report in 2011 which gives some ideas of the construction costs of renewables and other technologies *. I’ve taken the central estimates given. Solar was not in the original report but I’ve added a conservative current installed cost for a 4kWp domestic system.

Technology Generation cost (£ per kW installed) Comments
Coal 2035 (carbon capture)
Nuclear 2686 PWR >10p/unit generation cost
Gas 588 Combined cycle 8.4p/unit (2009)
Tidal range 2600
Tidal stream 2462
Wave 2380
Onshore wind 1258 9.4p/unit (2009)
Offshore wind 3000 >16p/unit generation cost
Hydro 1594
Solar 1000 5p/unit over 25 years. *

The offshore wind and nuclear costs are the highest. We would say the cost of nuclear new build given is extremely optimistic. An opinion given weight by the construction of the new reactor at Flamanville in France. Its cost has soared from 3.3 billion Euros to 8.5 billion Euros with construction supposed to have finished last year (the Finnish reactor’s costs have similarly soared and its is not finished yet either). As the UK government has got more desperate to get companies to invest in nuclear new build it is said to be extending the subsidy to 40 years in a last ditch attempt to get the unit cost of production under 10p/unit. EDF are also trying to get the government to guarantee it will buy all the power produced. I assume what this means is that if the power is too expensive the government would pay EDF for power it could potentially produce but isn’t. Offshore wind is still higher than nuclear (in theory) but there are signs the cost is starting to fall with at least one of the new farms coming in at a lower cost of construction than found recently. Logically with offshore wind turbines in the future numbering in the tens of thousands round Britain’s coasts there is plenty of scope for cost reductions.

Gas is obviously cheap to build, but expensive to run and that does not look set to change with costs only going one way. Monitoring the NETA webpage which tells the viewer in real-time where the UK’s electricity is coming from suggests the operators have switched from gas as much as possible over the last year or so to either using imports through the Dutch and French inter-connectors or using coal, although burgeoning wind capacity seems to have kept its use down.

As we said in the book the wave and tidal energy sources are in an early stage of development and major deployment is 20 years away. The real surprise is solar which the costs have plunged. The FIT will be necessary for a few more years just to make the costs lower to ensure the payback is in less than 10 years for this technology.

There is no doubt renewable costs will fall further over the next ten years, the same cannot be said for nuclear. In less than ten years onshore wind and solar will not require subsidy. A 40 year subsidy for nuclear suggests subsidies will still be required forever. In addition time delays also strongly suggest nuclear is not the answer. By the time a fleet of new reactors can be built in the UK solar will be ubiquitous and the wave and tidal power sources will be coming on stream in huge numbers. Nuclear power output will continue to decline over the next twenty years until it virtually disappears. Far from being on us to defend our stance, the failure of nuclear power to be subsidy free, easy to build or have a solution to the waste issue suggests to us the onus is on our critic and his colleagues to persuade us that this is a good idea to solve our problems. This I would suggest in most Western democracies they have singularly failed to do.

* the economics are more negative than this, skewed by the low price for exported electricity though this has been raised to 4.5p/unit for new systems. Take a price of £1000/kWp and divide by the expected production of 800kWh and multiply this by the expected life of the system (25 years) 1000/(25 x 800) x 100 (for pence). Its very difficult to obtain up to date figures for generation costs everything is a bit out of date. DECC say that solar costs fell 50% in between summer 2011 and March 2012.


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