The French Nuclear Lesson (Energy Biz)
Magazines serving the utility industry are understandably biased in favor of nuclear energy. In the current climate of zeal for a nuke revival, it is important to keep the facts straight.
October 18, 2005
Energy Biz Insider recently ran an article correlating the French nuclear experience with the push to encourage nuclear power in the United States.
The article's author, Ken Silverstein, is a long-time energy industry analyst whose views I respect and whose UtiliPoint bulletins I found to be informative and insightful. Silverstein recently turned journalist, taking over as Editor-in-Chief of Energy Biz Insider, a newsletter for the utility industry. He writes:
"The French nuclear experience is now making waves around the world. France, which receives 77 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, says that the fuel source will remain integral to its energy mix and is necessary to meet global air emissions standards set by the Kyoto Protocol."
His article balances arguments for and against repeating the French nuclear experience in the U.S., but incorrectly interprets a subset of facts to build the positive side of the argument.
The cost problem
Let me add a few points to the article. First, let's not confuse operating cost per kWh with total cost. The Energy Biz article quotes a misleading figure:
"According to Platts' Global Nuclear Group, the operation and maintenance of [existing nuclear facilities in the United States] in 2002 continued to fall to a record low median of 1.59 cents per kilowatt-hour. That is less than the 3 cents a kilowatt-hour it takes to run a coal plant."
To make a fair comparison, we would have to add the quantifiable costs associated with each energy source, including radioactive waste disposal. This is known as levelizing costs.
Like the U.S., France does not have a permanent solution for disposal. The cost of temporary waste storage -- hundreds of billions of euros -- is being passed along to French taxpayers and ratepayers by the state and its subsidized plant operators.
In the U.S., investors have avoided nuclear projects for decades, in part because a history of cost overruns has made nuclear plants a poor investment. The market won't pay electric rates high enough to recover the cost of construction, security and waste disposal. The only other hope for nuclear would be to subsidize it, and subsidies must increase taxes, deepen the budget deficit, or both. That's not new in America: The fossil fuels industry receives more subsidies than all other forms of energy combined.
One reader said, in response to the article, "If we're nevertheless going to have huge energy subsidies, then there needs to be a debate over how those subsidy monies are best spent -- on nuclear power, or on a range of other measures that are less expensive and more sustainable."
The radioactivity problem
Energy Biz writes:
"In France, engineers thought the best way to get rid of the spent fuel was to bury it underground in storage in two sites there and in ventilated wells to control the temperature. An underground research laboratory in eastern France is now researching more effective ways to bury such waste."
Spent fuel is not the whole problem. France started its nuclear power program in the late 1940s. As old plants are dismantled, everything from contaminated conveyor belts to rubber gloves must be canned and buried until a better solution can be found. Meanwhile, more storage sites must be identified.
A French Parliament report from March of this year acknowledged that there's still no good way to deal with atomic waste. France has been at this for 50 years. That's not exactly a success story.
The public opposition problem
Residents of Bure, France, are "embracing" that underground research laboratory about as much as Nevadans welcome Yucca Mountain. Bure's aquifers run through the proposed storage site. But the city's residents aren't the only people pressuring politicians to avoid nuclear. Energy Biz pulled out this survey:
"A survey conducted by France's Energy Observatory in 2003 indicated that 47 percent of France's population being in favor of nuclear energy, compared to 41 percent opposed. That majority has prompted the French government to enact in July a new energy bill that continues the nuclear energy program and the construction of nuclear reactors."
The French are survey fanatics. The one older survey cited above actually showed that less than half of the French population favor nuclear, not a majority. The opposition is considerably stronger in other European countries. Germany and Sweden have made the popular decision to phase out their nuclear programs.
The clean energy problem
Public opposition grows in spite of the fact that these countries have virtually no reserves of fossil fuels and very little opportunity to harness hydroelectric power. And the world's most progressive nations have signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, which places more focus on clean power sources. Nuclear proponents consider nuclear a clean form of energy.
"The French have certainly embraced the implementation of nuclear energy and others around the globe are opening up to it. Nuclear energy's fate in other countries is still unknown. But the pressure to give it increasing consideration will only intensify as nations grapple to cut emissions and diversify their fuel portfolios."
France is not betting solely on nuclear to clean up their energy act. For example, France, which is the size of Texas, has 386 MW of installed wind energy capacity.
The renewable energy solution
France's wind industry was given a boost by an electricity feed-in tariff law passed in 2001. This is similar in effect to the U.S. production tax credit (PTC). Wind capacity in France has more than doubled since the law was passed. Even so, France remains one of the smallest wind energy producers in Europe, far behind Germany's 16,600 MW.
Worldwide, about 40,000 MW of utility-scale wind turbines are installed. The United States comprises roughly 6,300 MW, according to the American and European Wind Energy Associations.
The European Union has 34,200 MW of installed wind energy capacity, and has the aggressive target of generating 22 percent of its electricity from wind by 2010.
Germany has one of the world's largest photovoltaic arrays, a 10 MW system that covers 62 acres in Mühlhausen, Bavaria.
Those are success stories in the making. Let's watch carefully and perhaps we can repeat the right experience.