Frank Ackerman is principal economist at Synapse Energy Economics in Cambridge, Mass., and a Dollars & Sense Associate.
Nuclear decommissioning is always expensive. At the end of a nuclear power plant’s lifetime, it must be disassembled, and safe storage must be found for a huge quantity of nuclear waste. Some of it will be hazardous for tens of thousands of years, and must be buried in a storage facility that will remain secure for much longer than the entire history of human civilization to date. The German government has allowed the country’s electric utility companies to buy their way out of responsibility for nuclear waste storage at a price of 23.6 billion euros, but that may not be enough.
Germany has committed to closing all its nuclear plants by 2022. This deadline was first adopted in 2002 by a Social Democratic-Green coalition government, responding to Germany’s strong anti-nuclear movement. In 2010, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative government extended the deadline by up to 14 years. Soon after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, however, Merkel reinstated the 2022 deadline. Perhaps the only world leader who is also a physicist, she was newly impressed at the risk of nuclear accidents—and the risk of losing elections to the then-resurgent Green Party, riding the wave of post-Fukushima opposition to nuclear power. Of the 17 German reactors that were operating at the beginning of 2011, only eight are still on line. All will be permanently unplugged by the end of 2022.
Earlier retirement of nuclear plants affects the timing of decommissioning costs, but barely changes the magnitude. The main economic impact of early retirement for nukes is the loss of the low-cost electricity they could have produced in their remaining years. Most of the enormous costs of nuclear power are for initial construction and final decommissioning. With construction costs already paid via electric rates, and decommissioning costs already inescapable, the additional costs of operating a reactor for another year are relatively modest.
Does that mean that Germany’s early retirement of nuclear plants is an expensive mistake, potentially destabilizing the grid, increasing carbon emissions from coal and gas plants, and pushing up electricity imports? In a word, no.
Germany has committed to the Energiewende—energy transition—aimed at rapid replacement of conventional power sources with renewable energy and improved efficiency. In the years of rapid nuclear retirement, since 2011, renewable energy has continued to expand, while coal and gas-fired power generation has remained roughly constant. As a share of power consumption in Germany, renewables represented only 5% as recently as 1999, rising to more than 30% in 2015—while nuclear power declined to 14% in 2015.
Generation of electricity from fossil fuels has not expanded, so there has been no increase in emissions from the electric sector. And in any case, emissions from power plants are subject to a cap under the EU’s Emissions Trading System.
At the same time, the reliability of the German electric system has continued to improve. The duration of unplanned outages experienced by an average customer was 22 minutes per year in 2006, declining to 15 minutes by 2011, and to less than 13 minutes in 2015. France, with much greater dependence on nuclear power, averaged 65 minutes in 2013. The United States average was 115 minutes in 2015. Both nuclear and coal plants require large flows of cooling water, and can be forced to shut down during heat waves or droughts when river water is too warm, or too scarce, to provide effective cooling.
Is this rapid transition to renew-able power propped up by electricity imports from France or other neighboring countries? No again. Before 2002, Germany’s international trade in electricity was roughly in balance. Since then, during the era of renewable buildup and nuclear retirements, Germany has become a major exporter of electricity, selling more than 8% of its generation to other countries in 2016.
Stepping back from the details of Germany’s impressive energy transition, is there a role for nuclear power in a sustainable future? For example, is nuclear power the only affordable low-carbon source of electrical power? The answer is still no. The only nuclear power that could be described as affordable comes from existing plants, where the construction costs have already been paid. As the costs of new reactors continue to mount, utilities throughout the U.S. and Europe have rejected the idea of building any more of them.
Most technologies have declining costs over time, as industry acquires more experience with them and learns how to apply them more efficiently. With nuclear power, more experience has led to discovery of more and more hazards, requiring an ever-longer list of expensive safeguards—and hence to increasing costs. Talk of new, safer designs for reactors, popular among nuclear researchers for decades, has remained nothing but talk. A few years ago, Westinghouse announced a new, standardized, “low-cost” reactor design. The attempt to build a few of them led directly to the recent bankruptcy of the company. It may yet bring down Toshiba, the owner of Westinghouse in its last, disastrous years.
Still, carbon emissions are undeniably lower for nuclear power than for fossil fuels. Some climate advocates, such as former NASA scientist Jim Hansen, insist that nuclear power is essential for carbon-emission reduction. Addressing this question re-quires a look at “lifecycle emissions”—from construction of facilities, through operation, to dismantlement and waste disposal. While there are no greenhouse-gas emissions from reactor operation, the reactor lifecycle includes significant emissions from construction. The same is true for wind and solar power, and for fossil fuel plants as well.
According to a recent literature review, coal plants have lifecycle emissions of about 1000 grams CO2-eq/kWh (see table). Emissions for gas plants are about half as much. In contrast, nuclear plants have lifecycle emissions only about 1/15 as high as coal plants. But solar photovoltaics are even lower—about 1/20 as high as coal plants, while wind turbines are lower still.
To sum up, lifecycle emissions from nuclear-power plants are much lower than from fossil-fuel plants, and closer to renewables (only twice as much as from wind power!). But unlike renewables, nuclear power comes with horrendous construction costs and delays, uncertain nuclear accident risks, and unsolved very-long-term waste disposal problems.
Other than that, it’s a bargain.
Sources: The German Energiewende Book, book.energytransition.org/; numerous entries on cleanenergywire.org; Wikipedia, “Energiewende in Germany” and sources cited there; Fraunhofer Institute, “Energy Charts”, www.energy-charts.de/index.htm; German government energy data at www.bmwi.de/Navigation/EN/Topic/energiedaten. html; Nugent and Sovacool (2014), source for table.
Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Dollars & Sense.
Triple Crisis welcomes your comments. Please share your thoughts below.