I read about reactors everyday. It is a trillion dollar industry worldwide, with over 30 countries with operating reactors. The stories are often contradictory and there is incredible national and international politics at play. (For example, Russian incursions into the Ukraine have damaged its nuclear export business because it depends on component vendors from countries which now have trade embargoes up against it).
One of the most important nuclear countries in the world is tiny Finland. In 2003, Finland became the first country in Europe in 15 years to order a new reactor. They ordered a French reactor, the first European Pressurized Reactor (or EPR) from Areva. This was supposed to be a model for new nuclear construction worldwide and because they were taking a chance with an untried technology, they negotiated a fixed price for the reactor and pre-sold the electricity based on this fix price.
It was supposed to cost 3 billion Euros. It was supposed to be completed in 2009. Originally, nuclear giant Siemens joined Areva in the contract to build this reactor, but the project went so badly in 2009 they dropped out. Now it is at least 9 years late in completion and it will be over 8.5 billion Euros, almost 300% over budget. Even with this project getting further delayed, ambitious nuclear Finland decided in 2010 to start the process for the construction of a 6th and 7th reactors. The Finnish government had given the nuclear utility TVP until end of June to finalize its building permit request.
This week TVO, the Finnish nuclear utility with the option to build these new reactors, scrapped their plans. This little reported story is actually very bad news for the global nuclear industry. Finland is a rich, technologically advanced country and it leaving the fold of countries which might build new reactors is another nail in the coffin of this dangerous industry.
The official reason for scrapping these proposed new reactors is that they have no confidence in the completion of the EPR which is under construction. Let’s hope the Brits who are thinking about building two of this design reactors are paying attention.
And if the facts don’t hit hard enough, perhaps this powerful subtitled Japanese video will.
It was Prague in 1991. The debate about the Soviet designed and partially built Temelin reactors being completed by Western firms was in full debate in the Czech Republic.
The representatives from the power utility were debating my young boss, Honza Beranek. It was a table full of true believers. The technocrats were convinced they were right and Honza knew better.
There were over 200 people in the room including half a dozen English speakers. The government thought this was sufficiently important to pay for simultaneous translation into English for the event. And the translator was good. Very good.
As the debate went on, the moderator lost control of the speakers (this happens surprisingly often in the East) and our translator tried valiantly to keep up. He donned different voices for the different speakers so he did not have to keep telling you which one he was becoming and losing time by identifying the transition.
Then on stage, all hell broke out. Honza was arguing with the PR guy from the reactor, and they were both really going at it. Increasingly they did not let the other finish their comment and interrupted them. In response the translator spoke faster and switched voices more.
Finally, the moderator stopped the discussion. At this point the half dozen people who had listened to this amazing translator broke out in applause. It was one of the most amazing linguistic fetes any of us had ever experienced. Of course the rest of the audience was completely baffled, for they thought they had experienced everything and we were just getting poor translations.
The hardest part of being an activist on almost all issues is that you have to tell people bad news and then you have to get them to feel motivated to do something. “Nuclear meltdowns are not a 1 in 10 thousand year tsunami problem that are half the world away, they are a 1 in 20 year problem in a state where you might well have relatives” or “If you don’t want your grandchildren to hate you, you need to learn to share” and the like.
So whenever i get a chance to point at good news, i try to do this. Over the past few weeks, three increasingly important clean energy stories have caught my eye and i want to hype them.
The first hails from Bloomberg and describes wind’s bright future, specifically noting:
- Wind power costs have dropped 43% in the last 4 years
- Almost 5% of the US’s electricity comes from wind and it is rapidly increasing its share
- US natural gas can now be exported, which will increase US prices and thus favor wind solutions
- Even without the wind tax credit, there are lots of approved projects in the pipeline for years of construction
The second article from Quartz Magazine about decreasing solar energy costs including:
- Solar just beat out natural gas and coal solutions in oil rich Dubai
- Dramatic price decreases around new thin film solar technology will be coming soon
- Onshore wind energy and energy from natural gas had parity pricing in the US last year.
But the most important article is not about wind or solar, it is about batteries. This article is complex and it takes the form of a tutorial in energy economics. It includes the following gems:
- Solar need not be cheaper than gas to get implemented. It is already cheaper than gas turbines in handling peaking power (times of peak demand)–a time which is a major headache for utility companies
- Three states are going to buy 6GW of battery storage, about 6 full size reactors worth
- Grid deployed giant batteries already make sense in natural gas rich and cheap Texas (and California)
- Retail customer grid defection is coming soon (first in the West, Southwest and mid-Atlantic regions)
So there is good news. We are still in trouble, but don’t be blinded by it. And when people tell you that “renewables can’t compete,” try not to laugh. Politely inform them that they are living in a past which was going to kill us.
Were there any justice in the world, April Fools day would be the annual nuclear power holiday. The industry started by fooling us from its very inception.
Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace has been the vehicle for the development on nuclear weapons around the world. The Price Anderson nuclear insurance act fools you into thinking there is liability protection from nuclear accidents, there is not. Pundits from Fox News to the NY Times claim reactors are a solution to climate change, but they aren’t. Nuclear proponents claim they produce inexpensive power, but they don’t. One of the biggest jokes on us is the idea that renewables with constantly decreasing generation prices are not going to eventually beat out extraction based technologies like fossil fuels and nuclear. In fact, we are well past this point.
Were we to embrace this obvious fact, we would not be building 5 reactors in the US right now. In the spirit of this nuclear foolery holiday a small handful of British activists blocked the road going into operating UK reactor Hinkley B. Their basic complaint is that this reactor is operating past its design life and endangering the locals and money is being wasted on upgrading it, especially given the fact that the price of renewables is markedly down in the UK. But the real joke this year is Hinkley C. The proposed total cost for this new giant Anglo-French reactor complex is over US$ 50 billion. This project is often billed as “the most expensive energy project ever.” It is also being attacked for its massive subsidies by anti-nuclear Austria. With a government negotiated contract guaranteeing $137/MWH which is twice the current UK wholesale price and over 5 times the current US price.
Don’t be fooled.
Peter Weish was a graduate student at the prestigious University of Vienna. He was supposed to be studying molecular biology but got pulled into the national referendum to stop the Zwentendorf reactor. It was Austria, it was 1978, and it would prove to be a defining moment in the nation’s political history, and it happened on a train.
Austria is a tiny country, currently with a mere 8.5 million people and a geographic size about that of South Carolina. It is also a country with tremendous self pride, especially in feats of engineering. In the early 1970s the Germans had jumped onto reactors in a big way, and Austria was doing what it could to catch up.
The Zwentendorf ground breaking was in 1972, immediately after construction began an earthquake destroyed the initial foundation which had to be laid again. And after 4 years and about a billion Euros (or the equivalent in Austrian Schillings at the time) the reactor was completed.
Opponents of the the widely popular reactor challenged it and the then Chancellor (like President) Bruno Kreisky decided to bet his political future on the project. He agreed to a referendum of the reactor complex which was nearly finished. Kreisky was a socialist. The labor unions were backing him and the project. Austrian heavy industry was backing the project. The technocrats, which the country has an abundance of, thought this was a lovely plan. What could go wrong?
Turned out it was the train from Salzburg to Vienna that changed history. On his train was the industrious Peter Weish, grad student at U of Vienna. He knew Austria’s only Nobel Prize winner, Konrad Lorenz, because he had taken a class from him. Lorenz was riding in first class, Weish walked through on his way to the dining car. Lorenz recognized him and asked what he was up to in Salzburg. An animated Weish told of the organizing work he was doing around stopping Zwentendorf. Lorenz and his wife were fascinated by Weiss’s thinking and critique. The story has it Lorenz paid for an upgrade to Weiss’s ticket so he could ride first class and continue his story.
At the end of story Weish mentioned that there would be a big rally in Vienna on Sunday. “We should go.” Konrad said to his wife. “And you should speak.” His wife advised.
Turns out in some things technocrats are the same the world over. Often when justifying their fantastically expensive adventures they turn to lines like “Oh it is too complex, you would not understand it, you should trust the experts, they will do the right thing.” Lorenz found this reasoning infuriating.
“If a scientist tells you something is too complex to explain they are either incompetent or lying. ” Lorenz boomed at the rally. It was a turning point for the country. If the most respected scientist in the land was saying the technocrats were misleading the public, then clearly the reactor should not be build.
The referendum was very tight. Over 60% of the country voted and 50.5% voted to stop the reactor. Within months of this vote, the Three Mile Island accident in the US occurred and many Austrians felt vindicated in their “no” vote.
But the amazing thing is that the country having been so divided, quickly became the most powerful and unified voice in the EU parliament for nuclear safety and blocking other reactor initiatives. It is thought the referendum woke up the whole country and gave it unified direction.