February 17, 2007
Big Electric CO2 Emissions Reduction Hard To Do?

The Electric Power Research Institute claims in a new report that the United States can't reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electric power plants below 1990 levels any sooner than 20 years from now and that only with their most optimistic scenario.

Electric power companies, which emit about one-third of America’s global warming gases, could reduce their emissions to below the levels of 1990, but that would take about 20 years, no matter how much the utilities spend, according to a new industry study.

No, if money was no object then the entire fleet of coal and natural gas burning electric generation plants could be replaced by nuclear power plants. But it is a question of how much money we are willing to spend.

They think their lowest emissions scenario is optimistic.

The report, prepared by the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit consortium, is portrayed as highly optimistic by its authors, who will present the findings on Thursday at an energy conference in Houston.

The study assumes only a two thirds increase in nuclear power.

The industry study calls for 64 gigawatts of additional nuclear power by 2030, an increase of about two-thirds from the current level. For the first time in three decades, several companies have expressed interest recently in ordering new reactors, but they will probably take nearly 10 years to build and experts expect no more than six or eight in the first round.

The study’s figure implies a net increase of about 50 new reactors by 2030; the Energy Department is counting on about 10.

But imagine instead that we no longer built new coal or natural gas burning electric plants and all new electric plants used energy sources that generate no carbon dioxide. Coal burning technology isn't ready for full carbon sequestration. So go with nuclear and wind instead.

Most drastically, we could halt all carbon dioxide emissions from electric generation (cutting out a third of US CO2 emissions) by switching to only non-fossil fuels for electric power generation. For example, in the United States we could switch to nuclear where we now use coal and natural gas. In 2005 nuclear power accounted for 19.3% of total electric power generated. The United States had 104 nuclear reactors operating in 2005 with a total capacity of 97 gigawatts (almost 1 gigawatt per plant). So as a rough first approximation if we built 400 nuclear power plants or 4 times as much as we already have we could shut down all the fossil-fuels burning plants. Though that would not provide enough electric power during the peak afternoon demand periods.

So here's my question for knowledgeable readers: What percentage of electric power is used for baseline demand and what percentage is used for above baseline usage? Would we have to build 6, 7, or even 8 times as many nuclear plants as we have now in order to eliminate all use of fossil fuels to generate electricity? The multiple is certainly less than 10 and lower if we institute variable pricing for electricity to flatten out demand. Also, hydro could be used for part of the peak demand capacity. But the multiple is higher in order to account for growth in demand which now runs at 1.5% per year.

The average nuclear power plant now operating is smaller than the average that would get built in a new nuclear power plant building program. But if we had to build 8 times as much nuclear power (about 800 gigawatts) as we now have and they cost $1.5 billion per 1 gigawatt of capacity then we are looking at $1.2 trillion dollars to build a fully nuclear electric power plant fleet. That's less than 10% of the US economy's product for one year. Spread out over 20 years it'd be one half of one percent of US GDP per year. So how can eliminating a third of all US carbon dioxide emissions be beyond the possible and affordable?

Mind you, I'm guesstimating. But I'm probably within a factor of 2 or 3 of the real cost. So this stays within the realm of the possible even if my estimate is low. Anyone know pertinent facts that would make a refined estimate more accurate?

We'd have to pay more for electricity if use of fossil fuels for electric generation was gradually prohibited. Nuclear power currently costs more than polluting coal plants. Plus, basically throwing away old coal and natural gas electric power plants has costs (how big the costs would depend on how rapid the phase-out). But we'd get cleaner air, less mercury in fish, and other health benefits. Also, a massive nuclear power plant building program would drive down the cost of nukes.

The report is available online as an Executive Summary, Presentation, and Presentation Q&A.

Update: If we go to an all-nuclear (or mostly nuclear with photovoltaics and wind and geothermal too) electric generation infrastructure then we'd reduce CO2 emissions by more than a third. Why? Within 20 years battery-powered cars are going to become feasible for most uses. Nuclear power and sufficiently advanced batteries combined could probably cut CO2 emissions in half.

The approximate cost of stopping the generation of CO2 for electric is the difference in cost between coal electric and nuclear electric (more if existing coal and natural gas burning plants are shut down before they wear out). That's probably 2 cents per kwh at most. Consider that in the United States electric prices cover a much larger range with, for example, costs in kwh for Connecticut of 16.25, Maine 14.55, Indiana 8.27, West Virginia 6.33 (cheap dirty coal), Kentucky 7.12 (again cheap dirty coal), Wyoming 7.8, Oregon 7.46 (hydro), California 14.23, and Hawaii at 23.57.

I do not see how an additional 2 cents per kwh is going to slow economic growth by much. Also, the real cost difference will likely become smaller if nuclear power plant construction gets ramped up to a rapid rate. Newer reactor designs will eventually lower costs as well.

Conclusion: We could greatly reduce CO2 emissions for a fairly low economic cost.

Here are some basic conclusions I've come to about the CO2 problem so far:

  • If we needed to cut down our CO2 emissions we could do so over the period of a few decades by phasing out fossil fuels to generate electricity.
  • If we needed to do climate engineering to cool the planet we could climate engineer very cheaply.
  • A non-regulatory approach to CO2 emissions is possible (and preferred by FuturePundit). We could accelerate the development of technologies such as nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and batteries to make non-fossil fuels cheaper than fossil fuels. Then the market would reduce CO2 emissions with no government regulations or taxes or international treaties needed.
  • Advanced battery technology used in ground transportation will lead to an even bigger reduction in CO2 emissions if coupled with a shift to nuclear electric power.
  • That there is a large net cost to humanity from higher CO2 emissions is still not clear to me. I suspect there's a high net cost for some parts of humanity but a large net benefit to other parts of humanity. How to morally reason about that? I do not pretend to know.
  • Some solutions (e.g. biomass due to damage to habitats) are worse than the problem.

I do not foresee future calamity from CO2 emissions. We have too many affordable options for dealing with global warming. But to be prudent and lower the costs of dealing with the problem we should accelerate energy research and think seriously about a big shift toward nuclear, geothermal, and other non-fossil fuels electric power sources.

If anyone has more accurate data for some of the guesstimating I did above I'd like to hear from you. Is there some reason why I'm underestimating the costs of a switch from coal and natural gas to nuclear? The biggest reason I can see is the cost of generating peak electric power. But my sense there is that dynamic pricing will cause a big flattening of the demand curve as capital and home appliances get designed to shift more demand to when electricity is cheaper.

Why no use of other non-fossil fuels energy sources in this analysis? To demonstrate the practicality of moving away from fossil fuels I wanted to use a power source that already has costs much closer to the cost of coal. Wind and solar introduce even bigger peak power supply problems than nuclear does. And they cost more. Solar is way too expensive. They'll both fall in price. But I wanted to demonstrate that we could phase out coal and natural gas for electric power without waiting for technological advances.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 February 17 11:00 PM  Energy Policy

William F. Moody said at February 18, 2007 2:51 PM:

It takes a while to develop the competent workforce needed to scale up nuclear construction. Regulations pertaining to nuclear construction are draconian, and will have to be significantly trimmed if there is to be a rapid construction program.

Nuclear plants have to be run all the time. Coal and gas-fired plants can be started and stopped more easily. Gas turbines are particularly good for peak load matching. Renewables won't be good load matchers until better energy storage is available. It's not a matter of straight across replacement of fossil fuel plants with nuclear.

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2007 3:18 PM:

William F. Moody,

Dynamic pricing could flatten out the demand for electricity. This would reduce the need for natural gas peak electric generation.

Really cheap electricity at night could be used for many purposes:

- Light for enclosed plant nurseries. Give the plants light when it is cheap.

- Recharge pluggable hybrid car batteries.

- Super heat or cool salts or other materials and then blow air over them to cool or heat buildings during the day.

- Pump drinking water at night. e.g. run the California aqueduct more at night than during the day.

- Do more heavy computing tasks at night when the electric is cheaper. Shut down some processors during the day. e.g. recalculate database indexes at night or do design simulations at night.

- Do more aluminum smelting at night when electric is cheap. Ditto for other electric-intense heavy industry processes.

Currently peak electricity use is subsidized by those who use more off-peak electricity. The same average price all day and all night effectively subsidizes peak users. Dynamic pricing would raise peak prices and lower off-peak prices. Capital and business processes would be reconfigured to do more work at night.

Also, nuclear can replace all coal-based baseload supply even without dynamic pricing.

Peter said at February 18, 2007 3:19 PM:

As you mentioned, Hydro power can be used for peak load in some areas of the country. Of course, here in the pacific northwest, our local enviornmental community is all hot to take down our hydropower. This is one of the reasons I suspect the loudest global warming shouters (see Al Gore) don't really care about Global warming, but rather have control issues.

Glenn said at February 18, 2007 3:25 PM:

I'd like to see more interest/research on goethermal. Nuclear waste issues alone are a nightmare (logistically speaking) at current levels. Factor in safety, decommisioning, the security issues with that many additional "targets" (not to mention strip mining uranium), and I'm thinking we gotta keep thinking....
Unlike solar and wind, we have lots of hydro energy available continually- where are the hydro electric generating technology advances?

Brian Wang said at February 18, 2007 3:36 PM:

Something else to be done over the next ten to 15 years is to up-power all of the existing and new reactors.
MIT has worked up ways to increase power by 50% and make the systems safer using donut shaped fuel and different coolant.
Up-powering all existing reactors 50% would give 48GW more nuclear power right there.
Plus up-powering the discussed 50 more nuclear reactors that are also up-powered would be 32GW more than the 64GW.
So 240GW without increasing the number of plants or the number of people to run them.

The focus of new reactor research (besides switching over to molten salt thorium reactors) should be on automation/passive safety and mass production.

Globally there are over 200 nuclear plants being constructed (27-29), planned (62) or proposed.

India has an interesting plan for energy independence using thorium nuclear power. The plans are proposed by Indian president Kalam.

We built most of the current reactors faster than the new reactors. So the slower pace of reactor production is not for technical reasons.

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2007 4:08 PM:


I've done a recent post on geothermal's potential. The MIT study says the United States could get 100 GW from geothermal by 2050. That's about as much as we get from nuclear now. Given growth in demand for electric by 2050 that might amount to less than 10% of total US electric consumption at that point. Good. But we still need other solutions.

As for hydro: We've already tapped the big potential sources. Keep in mind that every time we dam up water we increase its surface area and hence evaporation losses. Also, the West might naturally have less rain on average than it has had in the last 100 years. So our hydro energy take might fall in the future. Plus, a lot of the dams are silting up. They need unsilting.

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2007 4:12 PM:

Brian Wang,

Thanks for pointing out that MIT study. A 50% increase in nuclear plant output would probably make nuclear power cheaper than coal since the bulk of nuclear's cost is capital, not fuel.

In a three-year project completed recently for the U.S. Department of Energy, Hejzlar and Kazimi teamed up with Westinghouse and other companies to look at how to make a fuel for one kind of reactor, the pressurized water reactor (PWR), 30 percent more efficient while maintaining or improving safety margins.

They changed the shape of the fuel from solid cylinders to hollow tubes. This added surface area that allows water to flow inside and outside the pellets, increasing heat transfer.

The new fuel turned out even better than Hejzlar dared hope. It proved to be easy to manufacture and capable of boosting the power output of PWR plants by 50 percent.

This sounds like great news.

Robert Schwartz said at February 18, 2007 7:19 PM:

Randall: here is information on hourly usage of the major electric grids and a more in depth look at California usage history here [PDF]. There is a pronounced diurnal cycle with a peak to valley ratio of about 2::1 in many areas during the summer and on weekdays, but the cycle seems to be less pronounced on weekends and in the winter. This is by inspection of a few charts, not by numerical analysis of a lot of data.

That said, a couple of observations. First, the cycle is not a fact of nature, it is the output of a system tuned to certain parameters. One of those parameters is that most electricity customers pay the same price regardless of time of day. Clearly, ToD pricing is low hanging fruit in the system as it would be cheaper and faster to implement than any new power generation technology.

Second, wind and solar would not solve the problem as neither can deliver either peak load on demand nor base load reliably. Both methods therefore require investment in load leveling devices. Solar, it must be said, is a closer fit to the real cyclical problem than wind as it will be most available on sunny summer days, but even then it must be buffered to be useful since the peak demand hours are usually in the late afternoon while peak production will be at mid-day.

Another question is who will make the capital investments to level demand. In a peak pricing system, it might be worthwhile to equip buildings with large tanks of water, which could be chilled with off peak power and could provide cool air during the hottest hours of the day. It might be more economical to do this than it would be to build large power storage units that would be attached to the grid.

"Nuclear waste issues alone are a nightmare (logistically speaking) at current levels."

No, actually, they are trivial. Spent fuel rods still have about 90% of their fuel remaining. They need to be recycled. This is done in France. If the French can do it, so can we. Please recall that nuclides with a long half life are not hot, and that hot nuclides are the ones with short half-lives.

Nick said at February 18, 2007 7:39 PM:

Randall, I understand why you didn't emphasize wind & solar. I would argue, though, that wind is the conservative choice: the technology is proven, on the market, only held back by the speed with which factories can expand (roughly doubling every 2 years), and falling predictably in cost (except for the premiums currently charged for scarcity, caused by demand rising even more quickly than supply).

The EPRI study assumes only 7% wind, solar and biomass by 2030. That's just embarrasingly low. It's right at the point of dishonesty. The US could easily do 20% wind by then, 10% solar, and 10% biomass (which is very inefficient for liquid fuels, but pretty efficient for electricity generation).

AFAIK there's no question that wind costs will fall, and that central concentrating solar plants could produce peak power at less then 10 cents/kwh, which is pretty competitive. Intermittency problems could be handled up to that level pretty easily with geographical diversity, storage (including pumped storage & others), dynamic/time of day metering and demand management (including PHEV/EV charging). That's not even getting into vehicle to grid.

If they were really aggressive utilities could do even better. Further, it's highly likely that the cost of consumer-installed PV will fall below retail electricity prices in the next 10 years (with products like nanosolar), and renewable electricity will grow dramatically quickly, outside the control of utilities.

They should be embarrassed to present such an analysis. Embarrassed.

Nick said at February 18, 2007 7:46 PM:

Robert, when you say "wind and solar would not solve the problem as neither can deliver either peak load on demand nor base load reliably. " I think you mean to say that ""wind and solar would not solve the problem - without further investment to handle intermittency - ...", as you go on to say in the next paragraph. Recall that EPRI said that the problem could not be solved even assuming that "money grew on trees".

I would argue, as in my post above, those additional costs are perfectly manageable.

K said at February 18, 2007 8:12 PM:

Since the 20 year estimate is in a report yet to be issued it is hard to argue with.

Offhand I can think of several methods for such a study. And they would produce widely varying results.

Ballpark figures for nuclear:

Without standardization (we build them as we built from 1950-1980) we would get about 100 plants running. That would supply about 25% of what we produce now. But we will use at least that much more power by then and probably more. So nothing would be achieved* because the new nukes would have replaced nothing.

Thus, I don't see much can improve w/o standardized power designs and standardized plants. And unless the federal government makes it clear to states and environmentalists that plants are going to get built and operated.

Of course the report will not be only about nuclear. This is just a comment about how difficult the task of fundamental change in the electric grid will be. Just standing still requires running full blast.

* from the utilities standpoint nothing would be achieved. But if that added electricity is going into electric cars, etc. there would be reductions in fossil fuels use there.

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2007 8:25 PM:


I plead ignorance on the question of how far wind's cost will fall. E-P claims it'll fall in cost basically as the propellers get bigger each each device gets bigger. I'm not sure. There's bound to be a point of diminishing returns. As each unit gets bigger it has to go on a higher tower in order to make the blades remain the same distance off the ground and the tower has to get bigger to support the additional weight. How does that work out in economic terms? I've yet to come across a wind power design engineer comment on this knowledgeably. It is one of my open questions in energy technology.

Also, how much will nanotech materials advances lower costs for wind installations? Probably a lot. But when? 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

I feel on safer ground to argue for a big decline in the cost of solar power. A move away from using semiconductor industry quality silicon crystals to less pure silicon crystals is going to lower costs. Also, thinner slices will lower costs with better processes for how the stuff gets doped. Then a move away from silicon to perhaps thin films and/or nanotubes will lower costs still further. At some point the materials for photovoltaics will become suitable substitutes for roofing and siding.

Again, on solar there's the question of when all this will happen.

But we already have the ability to shift away from fossil fuels by using nuclear. The incremental increase in cost would not be too big. Nuclear will fall further in costs. My point here is that if someone really thinks we need to urgently move away from fossil fuels then the cheapest way to do it today is to embrace nuclear power. If someone doesn't want to use nuclear then they do not feel as urgently about the problem of CO2 emissions as they claim to.

As for biomass: I think you have that exactly backward. The only thing that makes biomass worthwhile is that it can produce liquid fuels for transportation. Back when corn was only $2 per bushel I wrote some posts arguing that corn was competitive for home heating. Now corn is at $4 per bushel. Well, corn is now a bad choice for home heating and similarly corn for heat for electric generation is too expensive as well.

To put it another way: Oil is the most expensive fossil fuel for electric generation and coal is the cheapest with natural gas in between. The same holds relationship holds for space heating. Corn is now more expensive than coal and natural gas. Not sure if it is now more expensive than oil in dollars per million BTU.

Engineer-Poet said at February 18, 2007 9:22 PM:

I think we can bet on the conventional 20% reduction in cost per doubling of cumulative production.  Land-based wind power has the further advantage that larger machines extend further through the surface boundary layer and capture higher average winds (I suspect that this is less significant over water).  Materials cost goes up with larger machines, but labor costs scale more slowly.

This picture is complicated by factors such as peak oil.  Fiber-reinforced plastic will become more expensive as oil and gas prices rise.  The cost of cement will rise along with carbon taxes.  On the other hand, the value of the energy produced will rise in step (and the return on plants built with cheaper energy will rise not unlike pre-boom real estate).  I don't pretend to be a financial analyst, but I'm betting on AE.

The only thing that makes biomass worthwhile is that it can produce liquid fuels for transportation.
We are diametrically opposed on that point; I am sure that liquid fuels are going to be relegated to second-tier status, and the primary product of all energy systems will be electric.  Biomass has the potential to make electricity with zero or even negative net carbon emissions.  We can supply our needs while pursuing atmospheric remediation.  What's not to like?

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2007 10:50 PM:


Yes, peak oil is going to drive up construction costs. But we can do some shifting toward materials that require less energy inputs.

Liquid fuels for transportation: I think you are missing two factors:

1) Old equipment. That includes most of the cars that'll get made in the next 5 or maybe even 10 yearss.

2) Pluggable hybrids will need liquid fuel for longer trips.

Sure, more of all total energy use is going to be via electricity. I totally agree. But if we are anywhere near an oil peak (within 15 or 20 years) then we are going to need liquid fuels for all the old capital. That's going to come from liquified coal and biomass.

Biomass electric: Way too expensive. Worse, it'll get more expensive as fertilizer and tractor operation get more expensive.

Robert Schwartz said at February 18, 2007 10:58 PM:
Robert, when you say "wind and solar would not solve the problem as neither can deliver either peak load on demand nor base load reliably." I think you mean to say that "wind and solar would not solve the problem - without further investment to handle intermittentcy ...", as you go on to say in the next paragraph. Recall that EPRI said that the problem could not be solved even assuming that "money grew on trees".
I would argue, as in my post above, those additional costs are perfectly manageable.

The problem I have is that no one has speced or costed energy storage devices. I think that until we do we cannot assume that we know the costs of wind and solar. Furthermore, if we have good energy storage devices they can just as easily be used to adapt the grid to the steady output of nuclear plants as to adapt it to the intermittent production of wind and solar.

ep: are you going to send you ideas into Branson?

glenn said at February 19, 2007 5:22 AM:

"2) Pluggable hybrids will need liquid fuel for longer trips. "
Pluggable hybrids.... Do current electric consumption projections cover many or most of us plugging in our cars every night? and lord knows what else... city buses, fleet vehicles,etc.

"As for hydro: We've already tapped the big potential sources. Keep in mind that every time we dam up water we increase its surface area and hence evaporation losses. Also, the West might naturally have less rain on average than it has had in the last 100 years. So our hydro energy take might fall in the future. Plus, a lot of the dams are silting up. They need unsilting."

I was pondering whether tech advances might allow for higher efficiency, slower turning , smaller,regional generators that might not necessitate damming along large rivers.

Engineer-Poet said at February 19, 2007 6:30 AM:

Randall writes:

Liquid fuels for transportation: I think you are missing two factors:
1) Old equipment. That includes most of the cars that'll get made in the next 5 or maybe even 10 yearss.
2) Pluggable hybrids will need liquid fuel for longer trips.
My Sustainability concept produces liquid fuels as a byproduct of the electric generation process.  The problem of equipment based on legacy fuels disappears by itself over time; if demand remains below the (declining) supply of fossil products plus the (rising) supply of bio-derived liquids, we don't need to do anything special.
Biomass electric: Way too expensive.
A great deal of the required biomass is already being produced as a byproduct of growing food.  Both rural and urban tree cover yield biomass.  Biomass from grass crops requires far fewer inputs than corn.  And the product of the biomass systems is inherently more valuable, because it has built-in storage.  Wind power may be the cheapest AE we can expand easily, but storage costs you extra.  A power system based on turning corn stalks and wood chips to charcoal, electricity and algal liquids has storage at a bunch of spots in the pipeline, and you get it for almost nothing.  How much is your carrying cost for a heap of charcoal?  Sure, some people will quote you huge costs for running a 1 GW coal-burner on dried grass pellets.  That's the wrong model.

Robert Schwartz writes:

The problem I have is that no one has speced or costed energy storage devices.
Some applications give you storage for free, too.  PHEV's in V2G or even DSM mode allow variable power sources to be integrated smoothly.
ep: are you going to send you ideas into Branson?
Branson has no provision for accepting ideas; it appears you apply by building your system and getting results.  While I sympathize with his not wanting to deal with submissions from tens of thousands of cranks, it does mean that those without lots of financial backing will find it very hard to play.

Doug said at February 19, 2007 8:24 AM:

Randall, you are spot on, not only do we need to use nuclear and renewable sources for new plants, we also need to be shutting down old fossil-powered plants. The enormous cost of all that is of course an obstacle. I suspect a bigger obstacle is political: an unlikely, unspoken, and unfortunate alliance between coal interests and environmental lobbies. Environmental lobbies have broad public support (at least while the lights are still on) and a knee-jerk reaction against nuclear power. Start with that, put it together with the unsolved intermittency problems of renewable sources, throw in the problem scaling renewables and the fact that environmentalists are now trying to block or tear down the one renewable (hydro) that's made a dent in demand, and it all adds up to more fossil energy use, with band-aid solutions like sequestration. Environmentalists think the the nuclear dragon was slain 30 years ago. The result is that instead of 50% of US electric generation being from nuclear today, it's from coal. If we stay this course, we are limited to replacing fossil energy only to the extent that we can make renewable sources do so, which is to say, not very rapidly at all. While Mr. Gore is talking about inconvenient truths, he fails to mention the inconvenient solution, nuclear energy.

P.S. Geothermal may have some near-term potential but people need to keep in mind that it's not going to be practical everywhere, and that it's actually not renewable on any reasonable timescale (it amounts to heat mining). Geothermal energy is not likely to be sustainable over the really long term (100s of years).

Gerry Wolff said at February 19, 2007 9:08 AM:

Regarding "Big Electric CO2 Emissions Reduction Hard To Do?" (2007-02-17), there is absolutely no need for nuclear power in the US because there is a simple mature technology that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.

I refer to 'concentrating solar power' (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, these are not always nearby! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient 'HVDC' transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may be transmitted to anywhere in the US and Canada too. A recent report from the American Solar Energy Society says that CSP plants in the south western states of the US "could provide nearly 7,000 GW of capacity, or ***about seven times the current total US electric capacity***" (emphasis added).

In the 'TRANS-CSP' report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

Further information about CSP may be found at www.trec-uk.org.uk and www.trecers.net . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from www.trec-uk.org.uk/reports.htm . The many problems associated with that technology are summarised at www.mng.org.uk/green_house/no_nukes.htm .

Nick said at February 19, 2007 11:23 AM:

Robert Schwartz writes:

“The problem I have is that no one has speced or costed energy storage devices. I think that until we do we cannot assume that we know the costs of wind and solar.”

First, there’s been a great deal of work on this, and costs have been exhaustively analyzed, in Minnesota and New York: the result was that the intermittency cost premium was quite small, IIRC well below a cent per kwh. The first thing to keep in mind is that large-scale storage isn’t necessary until you get up to well above 10% of nameplate generating capacity, and probably close to 20%. That’s well above the EPRI projection of 5.6% for 2030(!).

2nd, there are a number of storage options whose costs are well known, including pumped storage, flow batteries, and CAES. As E-P points out, PHEV/EV storage will be essentially free to the utility.

3rd, I’m tickled that you made this point: “Furthermore, if we have good energy storage devices they can just as easily be used to adapt the grid to the steady output of nuclear plants as to adapt it to the intermittent production of wind and solar.. “ Take a look at Ludington, MI, which was built about 30 years ago to smooth out power demand for nuclear power plants. http://www.accesstoenergy.com/view/atearchive/s76a3694.htm
Pumped storage costs less than $.50 per watt of power, and additional hours of capacity are pretty cheap in the right place. The US already has about 20GW of pumped storage.

As you see, you’re absolutely right that pumped storage works equally well for nuclear and renewables. In fact, nuclear has generally demonstrated the effectiveness of even VERY primitive demand management strategies, as industrial/commercial users have shifted a great deal of demand to their nightshifts. The funny thing is, that this should serve to reminds us that the concept of “baseload”, so often referred to by nuclear advocates, is to a great extent an illusion: it’s largely demand that has been shifted from the daytime.

Such demand management strategies could be made more sophisticated and used to shift more consumption to night, if needed for more wind (or nuclear); or in a dynamic way to handle wind variation; and could be used to shift demand to daytime (and to around noon if needed) to accommodate expanded solar electric generation.


“Of course, here in the pacific northwest, our local enviornmental community is all hot to take down our hydropower.”

I suggest that you stop thinking about environmentalists as a monolithic group - this is sloppy thinking, which I seem to see often. Just like business-people, most environmentalists are concerned about their local, narrow issues, and aren’t looking at the global optimal approach. It’s too bad, but it doesn’t mean that somebody in Seattle who wants to protect salmon is an agent of coal interests.


You asked about wind turbine improvement possibilities. Several things to keep in mind: 1) power is the square of the length of the rotor arms, as it is proportional to the area swept by the arms. So, double the length of the arms, quadruple the power. 2) wind speeds increase with height, and 3) power is the cube of wind speed. So, as you make wind turbines taller and larger power increases much faster than cost, probably roughly twice as fast as cost.

I see two major possibilities: offshore floating windturbine structures , which are based on proven oilrig technology but still in development. They'd reduce costs by eliminating the sea-floor based structure; allow bigger turbines; allow greater distance from shore which would take care of visibility problems, and take advantage of better winds. The 2nd is kite-based windturbines, which I believe will be faster to install, can take advantage of stronger & more reliable high winds, and have reduced structural costs - they're still in R&D, though, and more speculative.

The blades are a big cost component, and a lot of work is going into reducing their labor cost (the overwhelming majority of the cost of wind installations). GE just opened a plant in China, which will provide them with pretty cheap labor.

I think wind will eventually get to 3 cents per kwhr on average in the US, without subsidy.

My estimate is that if we were to take ALL the external costs into account, including pollution, GW, occupational health, esthetics (including the esthetics of chopping off mountaintops for coal), strategic/security concerns, nuclear proliferation, economic competitiveness in new industries and tech export possibilities, oportunity cost of long investment times for coal and especially nuclear, etc that we would find that renewables (wind and eventually solar, wave, etc) are the cheapest energy source and the best place to invest our money.


Do you have a substantive reply to the post about CSP??

Nick said at February 19, 2007 11:36 AM:

Oops, I didn't mean to include the Accesstoenergy website - that's pretty obsolete info, with many errors (like the overall pumped storage efficency number). I had it in my notes as a source for original cost info for the Ludington, MI pumped storage.

Here's a better source: http://www.consumersenergy.com/content/hiermenugrid.aspx?id=31

I wish there was a way to edit posts...

Brian Wang said at February 19, 2007 12:28 PM:

Gerry dumped his comment about concentrated solar on my site as well.
Here is my response.

As noted in the information provided at Gerry's links, the costs of concentrated solar power have been and still are much higher, but are "expected to tumble".
The california CSP
is 354 MW and is 90% of the commercial installations up to this point. That is 1000 times less than installed nuclear capacity. There are new deployments coming but they are in total maybe 2 GW over the next 10-15 years.
I wish this technology the best of luck but until it is helped to stop the production of new coal plants then I would rather see more nuclear power instead of new coal power. Get renewables of all kinds up to a global level of 200-400 GW per year of new capacity. For Europe it needs to be at about 40GW per year of whatever "clean electrical energy" to meet new demand. If it new renewable capacity was at 80GW per year then it could start to replace european coal usage over 20 years then it could start replacing nuclear. The proposed buildout of CSP over 40 years is less than 3 years of European demand growth.

The system that you are talking about for europe looks like 100GW by 2050 using 400 billion euros over 30 years. If it was funded which it has not been.

The EU gets 13% of its power and a large fraction of its electricity from coal. 14% from nuclear.
Coal use in europe is projected to modestly increase in the case where current nuclear power stays in place.

Electricity demand is projected to grow in europe by 52% by 2030 needing 761GW more capacity. Current plans is for 80% of that to come from gas. But Europe is planning to keep all of its coal power capacity and increase it by 5%
Even this most optimistic of alternative energy proposed scenario does not meet the increase demand with alternatives like wind.

Blah blah projection could provide nearly 7,000 GW of capacity. And if I made a Dyson shell of solar collectors around the sun I get a billions of times the energy that we use. When does it happen? how much does it cost? who is seriously considering building it. Vinod Khosla has got a lot of money and political connections. He and others can prove CSP out and make 100GW of it and we can start seriously looking at it.

glenn said at February 19, 2007 6:18 PM:

Here's a simple overview of current hydro picture in us from DOE EERE


Hydropower Resource Potential

DOE has completed a resource assessment for 49 states (no report was generated for Delaware because of scarce resources). The completed work has identified 5,677 sites in the United States with undeveloped capacity of about 30,000 MW. By comparison, today there is about 80,000 MW of hydroelectric generating plants in the United States.

Hydroelectricity is produced at about 180 federal projects and more than 2,000 other projects that are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Although there are substantial undeveloped resources in the United States, hydropower's share of the nation's generation is predicted to decline through 2020 to about 6% from about 10% today. The decline is due to environmental issues, regulatory complexity, and energy economics. Energy analysts expect almost no new hydropower capacity to be added through 2020.

To learn more about how much electricity hydropower could potentially generate in the United States, please see the State Resource Assessment Report.

The hydropower team is currently assessing available sites that could use low-head, low-power technology. Low-head, low-power technologies require 30 feet of head (standing water height) or less and they provide generating capacity of 1 megawatt or less. Low-head, low-power resource assessment reports are available on the Resource Assessment page.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2007 7:18 PM:


I'd be happy to just say that after some future date (give some time for planning alternative projects) no more fossil fuel burning plants can get built. Then the big rush would be on for nuclear, wind, etc.

We can do this for electricity. Electricity is the easiest energy medium to move away from fossil fuels.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2007 7:45 PM:

Brian Wang,

The amazing thing about Europe is that Germany is currently planning to shut down all its nukes. Angela Merkel is supposedly rethinking that decision. Germany is already not going to meet its Kyoto goals. Shutting down nuclear plants will make their CO2 emissions even higher.

I think nuclear power is a test of the seriousness of those who want CO2 emissions reductions. Nuclear power is the cheapest way to do that for electric generation.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2007 7:49 PM:


As that article you linked to states, pumped storage for electric power is only 50% efficient because of the losses from pumping the water and the losses converting the flowing water back into electricity. Then add capital costs and operating costs such as maintenance. Therefore storage more than doubles the cost of electricity.

Storage of electricity is costly. That's why there are low capital, lower efficiency, peak power electric generating plants.

Robert Schwartz said at February 19, 2007 7:50 PM:
A recent report from the American Solar Energy Society says that CSP plants in the south western states of the US "could provide nearly 7,000 GW of capacity, or ***about seven times the current total US electric capacity***"

We could use a link here. This is not intuitively obvious. According to NREL's maps there are places in the desert southwest where the insolation is more than 8kWh/m^2 per day. Multiplied by 365 days and 10^6*m^2/km^2, I get approx 3*10^9 kWh/km^2/yr.

Now the US, currently generates about 4*10^12 kWh/yr (EIA), so that would require 1250 km^2 of collectors by itself. Of course, storage, generation, and cooling facilities will also take up space. Cooling may be the biggest problem as desert locations do not have a ready supply of cold water. That plus the inherent efficiency limitations of heat engines, and the known fluctuations of the weather and the amount of daylight, will cause to be more likely looking at 10,000 km^2 of land area or more. What the economics of such an installation are, is beyond me.

Nick: I think pumped water storage is great, but I have two words for anyone who advocates it. "Storm King". The real problem here is that hand waving and yet to be implement technology are not much guidance. I would like to see more detail. As I wrote above, there are lots of possibilities and how they may be implemented can influence cost and acceptability. My suggestion of using off-peak power to chill a tank of water stuck me as pretty low-tech. PHEVs, which don't really exist yet are another story. Please recall that the GM PHEV from the Detroit auto show did not have batteries, they have not yet been invented. Both of those energy storage systems are broadly distributed. I assume that individuals would pay for them. OTOH, Pumped water storage is a utility company type project, that would be part of a rate base.

What is important is that wind and solar, by their nature, if they are to be major players in carbon-free electricity generation, must be taxed with storage systems. Failure to do that creates a misleading estimate of cost, just as failure to account for the doubling of the price of maize understates the cost of ethanol.

“Of course, here in the pacific northwest, our local environnmental community is all hot to take down our hydropower.”
I suggest that you stop thinking about environmentalists as a monolithic group - this is sloppy thinking, which I seem to see often. Just like business-people, most environmentalists are concerned about their local, narrow issues, and aren’t looking at the global optimal approach. It’s too bad, but it doesn’t mean that somebody in Seattle who wants to protect salmon is an agent of coal interests.

The problem here is that, unlike communism (in the good old days when Stalin was boss:-) or jihadism, environmentalism has no organization and no goons to enforce a party line. The dynamic between environmentalists and the MSM is that the hot-heads and drama queens are handed a bull-horn. The great majority of environmentalists might, at least abstractly, favor a major investment in wind-power, but if a project is proposed for Nantucket Sound, so-called environmentalists turn NIMBY and their senator uncles can throw sand in the gears. It's a free country and I don't like goons, but environmentalists need to figure out how to promote good projects and delegitimate NIMBYs. Otherwise they will be used by agents with less wholesome agendas, and they will deserve the scorn of the vast majority of Americans.

Engineer-Poet said at February 19, 2007 8:34 PM:
Please recall that the GM PHEV from the Detroit auto show did not have batteries, they have not yet been invented.
Only because GM is run by wusses.  The first Prius PHEV conversion used gel-cell electric bicycle batteries, and the commercial kit uses Li-ion.
Brian Wang said at February 19, 2007 8:45 PM:

Something to not in Gerry's link the one on costs of CSP

Their own estimates do not have the costs seriously dropping until 2030.

Some of the Germans that I met at the Herman Scheer talk mentioned that their pro-renewables stance ended up
increasing the amount of power that they bought from France which is of course nuclear generated.

The Germans are going to refurb and expand their coal power.
The Economist is indicating that most people are expecting the Germans to back off shutting off their nuclear power.

It is interesting to compare France and Germany.
France has lower emissions.
Most everyone that talks about the dangers and worries over nuclear power still seems to vacation in France.
(Over 75 million foreign tourists
They still get French wine if they can afford it.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2007 9:41 PM:


30 GW of hydro potential is less than a third of what we now get from nuclear and less than a third of what an MIT study says we can get from geothermal.

Tapping that hydro potential would reduce habitats for fish and probably do some other undesirable things.

Jim Hopf said at February 19, 2007 10:29 PM:


My understanding is that ~40% of US CO2 emissions come from power generation and another ~40% come from vehicles. About 85% of the power sector emissions come from coal plants (i.e., over one third of overall emissions). Coal plants aren’t used much for peaking power either (gas plants are). Thus, we could definitely replace almost all the coal plants with nukes, and avoid at least ~80% of power sector emissions (over 30% of overall emissions), w/o having to load follow that much with the nukes, which is uneconomical. Of course, any technology that can spread load (storage) or make use of off-peak power (plug-ins) could increase those percentages further. Anyway, from a global warming perspective, it is not imperative that we replace the gas plants with nuclear, as they are only responsible for ~15% of power sector emissions (and ~6% of overall emissions). We will need some gas and hydro for peak power, and to back up intermittent renewables.

Replacing our coal plant with nukes would require 250 GW of capacity, i.e., about 200 new plants (given the average capacity of the new designs). One might think that we’d need another ~200 nukes to power our vehicle fleet (plug ins or pure electrics), since the transport sector also currently yields 40% of emissions. This is not the case, however. The 40% emissions fraction for vehicles is based on oil being burned in internal combustion engines, which is relatively inefficient. The “well-to-wheels” efficiency of electric cars is far higher, about double, in fact. Thus, it would require only ~100 more nuclear plants (at most ~150) to also handle the transport sector.

Studies show that plug-ins would use electricity for ~85% of all miles driven for the average driver. In other words, if everyone owned one, transport sector emissions would fall by ~85%. We could power all those plug-ins with ~125 nukes (I think). Thus, for a total of ~325 new plants, we could replace all coal generation and remove ~85% of transport sector emissions. These two measures would cut US overall CO2 emissions by roughly two thirds. With high temperature gas cooled reactors, we may be able to power some of the industrial processes responsible for the final 20% of emissions. And finally, there’s always the possibility of nuclear hydrogen production, which can be used to low-carbon synthetic fuel generation, etc…

Nick said at February 19, 2007 10:33 PM:


As I tried to point out in a followup post, the 50% efficiency figure for pumped storage is wrong (I included that out-of-date and inaccurate link by mistake). The correct figure is 81%.

Several things to point out here: 1st, storage isn't necessary until wind reaches 10-20% capacity. Geographical diversity (still air in part of the country means air moving twice as fast in another, as those equatorial heat inputs have to flow north through one route or another) and demand management are the cheapest and firstline approaches; 2nd, pumped storage isn't especially expensive, it just hasn't been all that necessary in an era of extremely cheap natural gas - it is capital intensive, and needs a moderately long-term view, which hasn't been greatly in evidence lately. Nevertheless, the US has 20GW of pumped storage, and could add a great deal more.


Have you looked at Ludington yet? Pumped storage is an old, simple and very well understood system. No hand waving there. I suspect that the northern UP of Michigan (using two great lakes) would happily accept all of the pumped storage projects we coud throw at them. Now, I'll admit that's speculation, but it's a pretty sure bet - it's astonishingly poor up there....

"Please recall that the GM PHEV from the Detroit auto show did not have batteries, they have not yet been invented. "

Not true. The batteries are in use (see DeWalt 36-V power tools), they just need integration into power packs, controls and redundant testing for liability purposes.

"What is important is that wind and solar, by their nature, if they are to be major players in carbon-free electricity generation, must be taxed with storage systems. "

No question, if you wanted to go to, say, 30% wind and 20% solar you'd need storage, and there would be a cost. Remember, however, that EPRI is saying that it's not doable regardless of cost. That's clearly not true. OTOH, there would be a cost. On the 3rd hand, I think some simple calculations would show that it would be very reasonable (only a small % would need storage, and the storage isn't especially expensive, less than a cent per kwh).

"if a project is proposed for Nantucket Sound, so-called environmentalists turn NIMBY and their senator uncles can throw sand in the gears"

There are very, very few environmentalists opposing Cape Wind. It's mostly wealthy landowners, which happen to include some politicians, some conservative, some liberal. The liberal ones get mocked by conservatives (as indeed they should), but it's very misleading to focus on them. Again, it's a mistake to see a monolithic group. Think about whatever group you identify with, and reflect on the diverse opinions, and contradictory positions within that group....

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2007 10:45 PM:

Jim Hopf,

Peaking CO2 versus base load CO2: That makes intuitive sense and is very good news.

Pluggable hybrids: I keep arguing that better battery technology is one of the most important advances we need in energy overall. Combine the batteries with the nukes and I do not see why CO2 emissions reduction should be seen as such a difficult problem.

If we only build nukes for base load then the economic cost of a shift to nuclear goes way down.

So how much for the 200 new nuclear plants? $2 billion each? I want a price tag to put on it.

Ditto for the nukes for car recharging.

Jim Hopf said at February 19, 2007 10:50 PM:

Nick (RE: external costs),

There have been many studies done to quantify the external costs of various energy sources. The latest and most rigorous study, performed by the European Commission, is summarized at:

(hit the results tab on the left and scroll down to the table)

This study, like almost all others, shows that the external costs for nuclear power are a tiny fraction of fossil fuels’, and are similar to most renewables. The bottom line is that whereas adding the external costs would dramatically increase the price of fossil fuels (about double, for coal and oil), it would have little effect on nuclear’s cost.

Adding more nuclear plants in the US will have absolutely no impact on proliferation, period. No external cost there. The total eventual deaths from a worst case plant accident/attack, or worst-conceivable leakage from a waste repository, are both orders of magnitude smaller than the deaths caused EVERY YEAR from normal fossil fuel plant operation. And (for nuclear) these are extremely unlikely events, with normal operation causing no public deaths at all. Over its entire ~40-year history, Western nuclear power has never had any measurable impact on public health. This compares to ~25,000 deaths every year in the US alone from coal (~1 million over the last 40 years), and several hundred thousand deaths every year worldwide. This is a no-brainer. The studies I mentioned above merely confirm the obvious. Nuclear is basically like renewables, in terms of external costs (i.e., environmental/health impacts).

As far as what would happen if external costs are applied, no one source will win out completely. An optimum mixture will result. It won’t be all nuclear, just one reason being that nukes are not good at peaking power (load following). It won’t be all renewables, due to their intermittency. It may be true that renewables like wind will be the cheapest source for providing SOME of our power. But due to intermittency, and the high cost of storage, providing most or all of our power with renewables will clearly not be the lowest cost option, even with all external costs added. It will most likely be a combination of nuclear and renewables, with some gas mixed in to fill in the gaps. Gassified coal (possibly with some sequestration) may also capture some fraction of the total.

Jim Hopf said at February 19, 2007 11:08 PM:


The current thinking is that the first few new nukes will cost ~$2,000 per kW (i.e., ~$2 billion for a 1 GW plant). After that (i.e., after they've born the first of a kind costs and gotten experience building these plants), follow on copies should not cost more than ~$1,500/kW ($1.5 billion). OTOH, if we really built a large number of nuclear plants (i.e., hundreds), I can only see the cost going down further, through the use of large scale (assembly line) fabrication methods. I would think that costs would come down to ~$1,200/kW, and possibly even ~$1,000/kW, but this is speculation on my part.

To replace coal, we would need ~250 GW of capacity (not counting future growth in demand). If we assume an average plant cost of $1500/kW (which I think is somewhat high for ~200 plants), the cost would be ~$360 billion dollars (at $1.8 billion for each 1.2 GW plant). As for the vehicle fleet, if we use plug-in hybrids or pure electric cars, then those last 125 nukes are the same type as the other 200 (coal replacing) nukes. The more exotic reactors (like high temperature reactors) are only needed if we try to do something with hydrogen or synthetic fuels. Anyway, those 125 additional reactors would be ~$225 billion. Thus, the total cost would be under $600 billion, or less than 0.25% of US GNP over the next 20 years.

And keep in mind this is just the total cost, and doesn't subtract off the cost of the fossil power plants we'd be building anyway, in the nukes' stead, or the higher operating costs of those fossil plants. Net costs (i.e., the real cost of reducing emissions) are lower than this. The cost of nuclear power will be, at most, ~1 cent/kW-hr higher than that from new coal plants. Is this really too much to pay to get rid of global warming? Nuclear is already cheaper than gas, and gas costs are not likely to come down in the future.

David Bradish said at February 20, 2007 8:39 AM:


Jim is bang on in terms of how many nukes it would take to replace coal. About half of the capacity in the U.S. could be considered base load (IMO, it's always debatable what is baseload). There are three sources I consider baseload; coal, nuclear and hydro. If you look at their summer capacity here, you will find the three energy sources add up to about half the total capacity.

The costs of building a nuke are probably going to be higher than what Jim is quoting though. Labor and materials costs have really gone up over the past year which will affect nuclear. But the increase in costs doesn't just affect nuclear; it will affect new coal build as well and possibly gas and renewables.

Even though the costs of phasing out coal with nuclear are not substantial, it is not realistic. To build a nuke plant you need to prove the demand is there for more electricity. There are only two ways nuclear will be able to replace coal; build new nukes instead of coal to meet projected demand and fill in the gaps as coal plants retire. EIA (xls) projects only 5.7 GW of coal plant retirements by 2030 though. And they also project them building about 150 GW by 2030. Nuclear needs to tap into those forecasts to make the difference.

Even though I'm a nuclear guy and would love to see the world powered by nukes, I don't see coal going away for quite some time for nuclear to replace. The U.S. has the most abundant reserves in the world and it's a reliable source of energy. What I (and everyone else should) hope to happen, hopefully sooner rather then later, is that the labs will figure out how to make sequestration work at a commercial level. Whether we like it or not, we're going to need all sources of energy to meet our demands and that includes coal and nuclear.

Nick said at February 20, 2007 8:43 AM:


Two points. First, re: proliferation,

"Among those damages currently not included in ExternE estimates are nuclear proliferation, nuclear security, security of energy supply, visual intrusion and risk aversion. " (Frequently Asked Questions section, paragraph 7)

Those are crucial gaps. Clearly, this study is not intended to fully evaluate nuclear, and isn't yet helpful for doing so.

"Adding more nuclear plants in the US will have absolutely no impact on proliferation, period. "

Not directly, sure, but we don't live in a closed world. The technology we develop will tend to be used elsewhere, and the technology we neglect will tend not to. I believe there are six middle eastern countries now talking about following Iran's lead in developing nuclear power, and clearly weapons will not be far behind. WMD's were the putative justification for a $1.2 trillion war - that says something about the costs of weapons proliferation (it doesn't matter that the justification was deceptive - it was still considered an adequate justification). It also says something about unintended consequences, especially in the area of guerrilla war (aka terrorism).

Global warming is a big threat, but the threat of nuclear weapons has not gone away. You may ask - why do European "greens" feel so strongly about eliminating nuclear power? I believe it's because of proliferation. The green movement historically was very closely linked to the ant-war movement.


My sense is that in the US, due to enormous cost overruns in the past, that there will be a limited number of nuclear plants built in a "first wave" (perhaps the six for which large subsidies are available), and that nuclear growth will depend on the evaluation of the construction and inital operation experience of these plants. The first wave will take at least 10 years to build, and several years of operation to fully evaluate. A 2nd wave (presuming a successful first) would take a minimum of 5 years. This suggests that a large nuclear build won't take place for 15 years at an absolute minimum, and probably 20.

In the meantime, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute wind is already almost 50% of new planned generation for 2007, adjusted for capacity factor. See http://www.nei.org/documents/Energy%20Markets%20Report.pdf page 8 - (don't forget that due to the short planning horizon for wind, only 2007 is meaningful for wind - later years will only grow from the 2007 base). At current growth rates (doubling every 2 years or less) I see no reason why wind couldn't provide all new generation in just 3 or 4 years, and start replacing coal in 5, should we choose to do so.

In the meantime, solar PV is at 2.4GW of new installations worldwide and growing by 40% per year while costs (though not prices) are falling quickly (see nanosolar). At this rate solar will catch up with wind in about 10 years and provide a complementary (i.e., weakly negatively correlated with wind, and peak vs baseload) renewable source.

In this world, I don't see a need to rely primarily on nuclear, and in fact I believe the world would be much better off if we didn't.

What do you think?

Brian Wang said at February 20, 2007 10:03 AM:

How much incremental risk is there from more nuclear plants for proliferation?
40 countries already have the nuclear material for bombs.

This included repatriating fresh and spent fuel from the more than 100 nuclear research reactors in 40 countries that Russia and America between them supplied during the cold war.

There are already 443 nuclear power reactors around the world.
There are more "research reactors".

Proliferation to Iran and N Korea is meaningless because they have already been proliferated to them back in the 70's and 80's.

wind power added 15GW globally last year. Most in Japan and Europe.
Total installed is 75GW.
We need about 150GW of new power each year doubling from 3TW to 6TW in 2030.
China and other around the world are building more than one coal plant every week.

As I indicated up-powering existing nuclear reactors can take place in the first 5-15 years.
50% power increase is 50GW. There are some builds or rebuilds of existing licensed reactors that will
be done starting this year.
More experience with nuclear plant building is coming from the 28 plants being built around the world now and he 64 that will start construction soon.

List of reactors benig built and when they are expected to start, size, location, name
Can find some matching info on the big companies that are helping to build them.
Areva, Westinghouse, Mitsubishi, CANDU, GE etc...

$/KW cost figures ($1600-2000/KW)

K said at February 20, 2007 12:12 PM:

Brian, Jim, David, et al.

Good to see all these figures and support for nuclear. And the clear thinking about the proliferation boogy. Nuclear is used around the world and we have no monopoly on experts.

Countries that want to build or get nuclear bombs will - some will find it difficult, some will find it easy, none will find it impossible.

The problem with nuclear is that we aren't doing it. While plants go up around the world we fart around debating, reviewing, taking years to license, years in court. We don't adopt a standard design, method, or overall plan. Savings from standardization show up in both cost and time. And they are big.

But what can be expected when we ponder the fiasco of paralysis at Yucca Mountain and of almost no fuel reprocessing after twenty years of funding it.

Consider the story of the old man who instructed his gardeners to plant his estate with trees. Why? He was asked, he would never see them. He replied 'in that case start tomorrow.'

Randall Parker said at February 20, 2007 5:45 PM:


I'm skeptical of an 81% efficiency claim for pumped water as a way to store and retrieve electric power. Can you show me where that claim comes from?

David Bradish,

I am opposed to coal because I do not want the particulates, mercury, and other pollutants. So far popular pressure for reduction of emissions hasn't gotten intense enough to force the coal burners to totally clean up. That allows coal to undersell nuclear. If the pressure to cut conventional pollutant emissions builds high enough then the price gap between coal and nuclear will get much smaller..

Another possibility is that public worries about CO2 emissions will get large enough to force the coal burners to do sequestration. That would probably be enough to make nuclear cheaper.

I do not buy the argument that we need coal. Nuclear could substitute for it entirely. The cost delta doesn't seem large. But it is large enough to keep electric industry lobbyists working against tougher coal plant emissions regs.

As for construction costs: That's a really big problem. Is it transient? Will steel and other production scale up and will costs fall eventually? I'm coming across reports of 40% and 50% growth in costs of coal electric plants:

Westar Energy knew its coal-fired plant was in trouble.

The Kansas company wanted to build a $1 billion, 800-megawatt power plant, but construction costs kept rising as global demand for steel and other materials skyrocketed. Soon $1 billion became at least $1.4 billion -- costs ultimately passed to consumers.


The Charlotte company, which hasn't brought a coal-fired plant online in three decades, originally said the twin units would cost $2 billion. But late last year, the figure jumped to $3 billion. Instead of scrapping the project, Duke is moving ahead, saying the new estimate is solid. Critics, though, aren't so sure, claiming costs will continue to climb.

Rising material costs hurt nuclear even more than they hurt coal. I also wonder what material costs are doing to wind power.

Randall Parker said at February 20, 2007 6:10 PM:

David Bradish,

If coal burners aren't going to get forced to cut back their emissions of all pollutants and CO2 enough to raise coal's cost about nuclear then what are the prospects for nuclear's cost to fall enough to close the gap that way?

For example, would a better packaging material to allow heat to radiate more rapidly from nuclear fuel lower the cost of nuclear energy by a penny or two per kwh?

Or is the prospect for much cheaper reactor designs still a distant prospect?

Engineer-Poet said at February 20, 2007 8:57 PM:

Would greater heat output shorten the life of nuclear plant steam generators?  (I realize they're run below maximum ratings to allow for loss of leaking tubes, but if the useful life goes down it might not help.)

Would the power turbines and alternators be able to use greater steam flow?

Everything involves tradeoffs.

Nick:  Thanks for the link to the market report, that is very useful information.

I'm mildly pro-nuclear, but given the lead time required to build plants in the USA and the small numbers, I think we'll be seeing far greater new contributions from wind by the year 2025.

Brian Wang said at February 20, 2007 8:58 PM:

btw: Japan has a functioning reprocessing plant that reprocesses uranium and plutonium.
Japan uranium reprocessing

Japan is reprocessing 800/tons per year of waste. 95% by weight of
the waste is uranium. The plutonium is not isolated at any point in
the process so there are no proliferation issues.
It took 13 years to build and cost $20 billion.
Three plants like it could handle the waste from the current US nuclear plants.
Copying it would take away a lot of the proliferation and waste issues.
A better solution than Yucca Mountain.

A supercritical retrofit to an existing coal plant would cost
$700/kw. A bunch of cleaner coal options are discussed at the link below.
(still dirtier than nuclear and others but less horrible.

Nick said at February 20, 2007 9:38 PM:


Wow. Are you really asserting that weapons proliferation is no big deal, and we should just let it happen? That the Iraq war, and the inspections beforehand, were all a big waste of time? That the whole world was silly to be concerned about Iraq, and N Korea?

Is that best solution you can find to proliferation?

I was really hoping for something better...

Jim Hopf said at February 20, 2007 10:09 PM:


In terms of the gaps in the ExternE study, nuclear greatly enhances energy security, which would be a negative externality (or perhaps an externality that is insufficiently weighed against oil and gas in the current analyses). In terms of visual impact, and footprint in general, nuclear beats renewable sources by a wide margin (except rooftop PV, perhaps).

And proliferation? Once again, I consider this a negligible external cost (i.e., a negligible problem) with respect to additional nukes in countries that already have them. You haven’t said anything to convince me otherwise. People using our new technology? The new reactor designs, which make them somewhat safer and more economical, do absolutely nothing to make them more useful for a weapons program. The old reactor technology was just fine, thank you. It also remains true that it is easier to just dig up uranium ore and enrich it than it is to reprocess plutonium out of spent fuel. It is not clear that power reactors contribute much to proliferation risk, as long as the questionable/developing countries to not get fuel cycle facilities such as enrichment plants or reprocessing centers.

That said, I may be willing to consider that there is some risk in spreading power reactors to every small developing country around the globe. To the chagrin of many nuclear enthusiasts, this may be a point I would be willing to negotiate on, and I may even be willing to accept a “no new nuclear power nation” policy (with a few exceptions, such as Australia, perhaps Indonesia, and any nation in the EU). The point is that nations that already have nuclear plants are responsible for the vast majority of energy use, air pollution, and CO2 emissions. Thus, we could have such a policy and still realize almost all of the benefits that increased nuclear power has to offer. The other side of the bargain, however, is that the current nuclear nations need to use a lot more of it, thereby saving the “easier” and “safer” sources, like natural gas, for the non-nuclear, developing world.

I don’t buy the argument that building more plants in the US (or other developed nations) would lead to more nukes in the developing world, due to the general advancement of the technology, or the “example” we set. In fact, if anything, the reverse is true. The less nuclear the developed world uses, the more gas (and perhaps oil) it uses. This puts greater stain on our limited reserves of gas and oil, which hastens the day when they run out. It also greatly increases the world market price of gas and oil. These factors make developing nations, whether they are oil and gas exporters or importers, more likely to want to build nuclear plants, because oil and gas are just too valuable to use for baseload power generation. One only need look at Russia to confirm this. They have announced that they are building a slew of new nuclear plants so that they can save their (high-priced) natural gas for export to Europe. The reason Europe needs all that gas is that they are (were?) turning away from nuclear for “safety reasons”. The net result is that the nuclear capacity simply moved from Europe to Russia (as opposed to being reduced). Russia instead of Europe. Has this increased safety?

As far as the Arab countries announcement about going ahead with nuclear programs, once again, how does building new nukes in the US affect this? IMO, this statement by the Arab nations was a veiled warning to the US to do something about the Iranian program (Iran being the Arab nations’ main adversary in the region). They basically said, if Iran gets a bomb, we will have to get one too. Once again, the only reason they are able to develop this technology is that nations like Russia and China keep selling it to them. That’s what we need to stop. I don’t know how to do that, but how many nukes we build in the US has absolutely nothing to do with it. If we didn’t build one more nuke in the US or the entire West, absolutely nothing would change about that situation. We would be still left with all the (same) negative outcomes, but will have walked away from all the benefits of nuclear power.

And let’s not forget that the high oil/gas price is what gives nations like those in the Middle East the money to fund nuclear programs (and perhaps terrorist activities). You also mentioned the Iraq war. It is precisely our dependence on oil and (soon to be) gas that is the root cause of our heavy-handed involvement in the Middle East, of resource wars like Iraq, and (perhaps) the resulting resentments that are the root cause of terrorism. Note that gas is rapidly running out in North America, and ~90% of all remaining gas reserves lie in Russia and the Middle East. Given all this, using gas for baseload power in the US (in lieu of nuclear) is a recklessly irresponsible decision. Based on all the above, the effect of using more nuclear power in the US is to increase energy security and to reduce the overall risk/likelihood of terrorism.

Jim Hopf said at February 20, 2007 10:11 PM:

Nick (continued):

In terms of the rate of nuclear expansion, all I can say is that I’m more optimistic than you are. For starters, we have ~30 applications already, and more keep being announced. The way things are going, a lot more than 6-8 of those will be built (especially if we ever have any tangible greenhouse policy). If the approval process goes well for the first set of plants (by ~2010 or 2011), a host of applicants will at least get their approval process started, as that involves relatively little risk. This second wave of applicants can then wait until ~2015 or 2016, when the first wave (ideally) finishes construction, to decide to start their construction. Thus, it is possible (best case) to have a massive wave of plants (perhaps 100 or more) to come one line around or just after 2020. Certainly, by 2025, we could have most of the baseload plants coming on line be nuclear. I’m with Randall on this one. I see no reason why nuclear would not be the preferred option for new baseload generation (winning most of the market share) for plants built around 2020 or later. If we built almost 100 plants between 1970 and 1985, when our GNP was much lower, we had less developed technology, and we were doing it all for the first time, there is no reason why we can’t build ~200 plants in the 15 year period between 2015 and 2030. Just my opinion.

I’m also less optimistic concerning the price of renewables continuing to come down. Diminishing returns always happen eventually. Why couldn’t the same happen for nuclear? Wind and solar still account for less than 1% of annual generation. We haven’t even gotten to the point where they see their growing pains (i.e., when their issues and limitations start to surface). My guess is that intermittency will limit them to less than ~20% of generation, even by 2030. Note that this is ~3 times what the EPRI study thinks will happen. OTOH, the EPRI study vastly overestimates the capability, and economic feasibility of carbon sequestration. Coal w/ sequestration will never be even remotely competitive with nuclear.

As far as preferring a world that does not rely significantly on nuclear is concerned, no, I have no such preference. There is no tangible evidence that nuclear has any significant external costs. It has not hurt anyone so far (over its long history) and has not caused significant pollution. It will not affect proliferation in any meaningful way. The waste problem is a non-issue, especially compared to the waste problems of fossil fuels and most other industries. I’m content to let the market sort out the relative shares between nuclear and renewables. All I really want is for fossil fuels’ massive external costs to be accounted for (air pollution, global warming, and the geopolitical effects of gas and oil dependence).

Engineer-Poet said at February 20, 2007 10:17 PM:

Japan's fuel reprocessing is not a proliferation issue.  The fuel it handles is PWR's, which has thousands of megawatt-days per ton of irradiation before it is removed.  It's chock-full of Pu-238, Pu-240 and Pu-241.  It would take extensive isotope separation to remove those contaminants and refine the plutonium to weapons grade.  It would be far easier for Japan to make a uranium bomb.

Nick said at February 20, 2007 10:40 PM:


Here's a source on pumped storage efficiency.


and here’s an indepth technical discussion: http://www.usace.army.mil/publications/eng-manuals/em1110-2-1701/c-7.pdf

E-P, Thanks. You should note that these are plans: permits, announcements, etc, and therefore are volatile - I expect the wind figures to fall through the year by 25%+. They seem to be most useful for analysis of the generating mix.

Jerry Martinson said at February 20, 2007 11:36 PM:

I have two comments on solar and one on Coal/PM2.5s:

Solar Comment #1:
It is well-known by US nerds that it is possible to collect extraordinary amounts of thermal energy on residential and business rooftops using inexpensive collectors and that this could be used for domestic hot-water and possibly radiant floor heating during cold weather. Less well-known in the US is the extraordinary properties of certain evacuated thermal collector systems that can attain extremely high fluid temperatures and power capacities (even in cloudy weather) from roof-top solar collectors (i.e. the Thermomax systems). The economics of solar thermal energy are already compelling enough for domestic and industrial hot water to be competitive without subsidy in many cases.

However, conventionally, this only helps the heating loads (which would be met by natural gas anyway) and not the cooling loads which are responsible for the "spike" in afternoon power demand. The Thermomax and other similar systems can achieve such high temperatures as to allow for it to drive a Lithium Bromide or NH3 absorption chiller system.

Some hobbyists have played with this if you'd like to take a look:

Conceivably, one could build a contraption that would either replace or assist a residential/business air conditioning system and this would cut on-peak demand substantially. I have no idea what the economics of something like this would look like but since I have no knowledge of a detailed comparison with other cooling systems I suspect that it hasn't been looked at very closely by someone with substantial industrial experience. All the systems that google has found do not look like they've had the obvious optimizations that a dedicated US$20Million engineering R&D effort could do.

Solar Comment #2:
Concentrating solar power to the point where it can heat steam hot enough to efficiently drive a turbine may be very costly. However, getting the steam to say 30% of the temperature required to drive a turbine using solar may be a lot less costly since you wouldn't have to use such exotic materials and mechanical contraptions. Fossil fuel/nuclear could conceivably be used to get the remaining 70% of the temperature increase. Although it's not pure solar, wouldn't it be nice if say 30% of the energy came from solar in a method that might be economical? I hear that there's an experiment in Australia to understand the capex and opex of such an approach.

Coal plant comment:

I haven't seen an post on futurepundit (and I apologize if I'm ignoring someone else's blog or if I missed it) regarding the recent large and well-done PM2.5 study that strongly implies that the morbidity and mortality from PM2.5's is probably at least 2 to 3 times higher than anyone had thought before. I don't know how much PM2.5's coal plants produce relative to diesel engines, etc... but it seems that this would increase the real social costs of a poorly-scrubbed coal plant much, much higher than anyone had thought before. I don't have a good feel for how much more this would add per kWh.

Randall Parker said at February 20, 2007 11:38 PM:

Jim Hopf makes an excellent point: If the Western countries and East Asian countries go nuclear in a big way then they leave more fossil fuels for the rest of the world to use. We'd also buy the world time for the development of safer nuclear technologies for use in the more problematic countries.

Also, a big shift to nuclear would lower the price of oil and natural gas and therefore reduce the money available for the spread of Islam and the waging of Jihad.

Plus, we'd breathe cleaner air and eat less mercury in fresh water fish.

As for the rate at which nuclear reactors can get constructed: We can scale up rapidly. The world has lots of steel production capacity and that capacity is growing. Various forms of needed capital equipment can get manufactured. Manufacturing bottlenecks do not last. Robotics will make scaling up much easier in the future. Look at automated welding in car plants. We'll see the same at nuclear reactor sites.

Randall Parker said at February 20, 2007 11:44 PM:


I am not sure which study you are referring to about particulates damage to health. There was the one within the last month or so about kids growing up withing a third of a mile from highways getting lung damage. I've seen another report on particulates and heart disease lately. I should have done a post on this stuff. It certainly supports my point that we'd gain big health benefits from a shift away from coal to nuclear.

So can you give me some idea which study in particular you are referring to? I'll do a post on it if it looks good.

Jerry Martinson said at February 21, 2007 12:18 AM:

I forgot another comment that I hope isn't too off-topic:

IMHO the cheapest way by far to get more electrical capacity is by "nega"watts. That is to say, by ruthlessly pursuing electrical efficiency to free up the capacity for either more stuff or lower emissions.

Having worked for a while designing products, I can say that while the cost per Watt of electricity over the lifetime of my products (and most products) is usually about US$10/Watt, I am under enormous business pressure to value it at US$0/Watt. This is because there is no way that products can be marketed with efficiency in mind unless they are a big-ticket item like an HVAC unit. Out of business necessity, I design to minimize the cost of the components and assembly cost only. I have pointed out many times to those responsible for marketing my work that I could cut the power consumption of my products down by spending more on parts but I cannot do this without making my products less marketable. This may be irrational social/economic behavior but it is widespread throughout the entire electronics industry/market.

Stricter rules and regulations to "fee"bate or front-end load the cost of the electricity into the purchase price would appropriately align both mine and other's design incentives to optimize the real total cost of the electronics's industry designs. This isn't a trivial amount of power either:

Did you know that your office PC wastes nearly 40% of its electricity due to its inefficient power supply system and could be made to only waste about 20% by increasing the capex cost by about US$1? That's right. In order to save US$1 in the capex of a PC, us electronics engineers have made your opex about $50 more (and this doesn't even count pollution externalities or the fact that you have to pay to cool this stuff as well). With the exception of laptops and cell phones, power is almost always wasted by the decisions of people like me as if it is free. Look at contemporary CPU schmoo plots: To get an extra 20% in CPU speed (which is nearly worthless to the user) manufacturers increase the voltage 20% and these two things together draws 2x the power. And then this CPU power is then converted from AC at 40% efficiency to save us a buck. This is pure lunacy. However, if I try to do the right thing, the companies I work for won't make money. Isn't this just stupid? The laws/regs have to change to fix this. If you ask me "Energy Star" and EPRI hasn't done nearly enough. This screwed up split incentive happens everywhere. It's got to be cheaper to fix this than make lots more power plants of any kind.

Jerry Martinson said at February 21, 2007 12:53 AM:


The study was indeed the one linking on PM2.5's and heat attacks in women. It is in the New England Journal of Medicine. Each 10ug/m^3 increase in PM2.5's caused a 74% increase in CVD-related death. Previous studies were much smaller and were done between cities which had less of a correlation and many more plausible confounding factor (i.e. how can you compare heat attack epidemiology between Honolulu to Pittsburgh, PA?). The results of this study are very strong within metropolitan areas and show dose/response curves and are very consistent. Although there are still likely major confounding factors (such as the lower SES of the "bad" end of town), this study seems quite damning of the role of PM2.5's. I find this very disturbing since it is CVD-related deaths which implies that it is not mere "harvesting" (i.e. killing the terminally ill with "dementia-induced aspiration pneumonia" or whatever people call dieing in a nursing home these days) but rather a real reduction in quality life-years due to the #1 cause of death.

Here's the study:
"Long-Term Exposure to Air Pollution and Incidence of Cardiovascular Events in Women."
Kristin A. Miller, M.S., David S. Siscovick, M.D., M.P.H., Lianne Sheppard, Ph.D., Kristen Shepherd, M.S., Jeffrey H. Sullivan, M.D., M.H.S., Garnet L. Anderson, Ph.D., and Joel D. Kaufman, M.D., M.P.H.
NEJM Volume 356:447-458, Number 5, February 1, 2007

Paul Dietz said at February 21, 2007 11:46 AM:

Japan's fuel reprocessing is not a proliferation issue. The fuel it handles is PWR's, which has thousands of megawatt-days per ton of irradiation before it is removed. It's chock-full of Pu-238, Pu-240 and Pu-241. It would take extensive isotope separation to remove those contaminants and refine the plutonium to weapons grade. It would be far easier for Japan to make a uranium bomb.

Reactor-grade Pu can be used in weapons. Simple ones are not as efficient as ones made with weapons-grade Pu, but one could reliably get a yield around 1 kT. With tritium boosting, which makes a bomb immune to efficiency loss from predetonation, no yield degradation at all would be expected.

What Japan's Pu stockpile would enable them to do is rapidly field a large arsenal (of air-dropped bombs), if conditions warranted.

Brian Wang said at February 21, 2007 5:47 PM:

I did have an article about the health study.

So a little plug for my blog.

I have also been looking at more of the tech for cleaning up coal particulates

since I think the major health issue is the particulates. Although arsenic and mercury, NOX and SOX are also problems.

Paul: there are some studies that a bunch of countries have the materials to make a bunch of nuclear bombs in a hurry if they wanted to. Brazil and others.

Nick: I am saying that
1) [this point was well made by some of the others.] There is almost no incremental proliferation risk from where we currently are at for more nuclear power.
2) I am saying that nuclear bombs and nuclear war are less of a risk than conventional war in general.
20th century. 200 million dead from wars and violence. 200,000 dead from nuclear weapons.
Fire bombing tokyo (over 3 days using about 1800 tons of bombs) in WW2 killed 100,000 in between the casualties of the 2 nuclear bombs.
Rolling thunder in Vietnam dropped about 864,000 tons of bombs over a year or so. It was on jungle.
But a conventional air force (like the US) could fire bomb 1000 cities over one year and more effectively ton for ton than in tokyo. Napalm and fuel air explosions are more effective now. Casualty rates would be over 100 million.
3. Any chump power that only has a few nuclear bombs will get a few off and then they will be destroyed...along with all the other potential problem states.
The greater concern would be Patriot Act 2-9 that get rolled out and the clamp down on all nations after such a big event. Don't bother saying well they smuggle a bomb over and then we don't know who did it. the US would not be that picky. The draft would be reinstated. Trillions in War bonds would be raised.
4. I believe that over the next 5-20 years sensing technology could allow for remote detection of nuclear weapons and materials.
Stick advanced sensors onto stealth UAVs.
Plus we have 2cm resolution satellites for over a decade. Keyhole satellites.
The next generation of LIDAR, t-rays, millimeter wave resolution sensing, gamma rays, and optical imaging will allow for some significant detection capabilities.
There is also some new machines for getting at the deep bunkers.
so Iran and N korea could get unproliferated if it was necessary. Far better to handle it diplomatically though.
5. Yes, Iraq was a waste of resources. Arm chair general:After the first 2 weeks they should have picked a colonel they were willing to deal with to take over with the Iraq army intact.
1.2 trillion could have bought 500 GW of nuclear reactors and reprocessing and advanced thorium reactor research.

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2007 5:32 PM:

Jerry Martinson,

I agree we should use electricity far more efficiently by requiring higher efficiency in designs.

But there's the problem: All of the increase in efficiency of car engines has gone toward making cars bigger. People tend to spend efficiency increases on greater consumption.

Cars are different in that people want bigger cars. Make an electrical device more efficient and people would spend some of their saved money on other things. So it is still worth making devices more efficient. Also, higher efficiency would raise living standards and that's a good thing.

But we still need to shift to nuclear in order for nuclear to replace coal. Enough of fossil fuels already. They are so 20th century.

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2007 5:54 PM:


Regards nuclear proliferation: Most of the countries in the world will not use a nuclear plant to create nuclear weapons. Should all countries refrain from peaceful uses of nuclear power because a few (primarily Muslim) countries will use nuclear materials to make bombs?

Also, some countries develop nuclear weapons before even trying to seriously pursue a peaceful nuclear power program. If, say, Denmark or Sweden turns away from nuclear power will this stop North Korea or Iran from developing nuclear weapons? No.

Countries that are pretty safe shouldn't refrain from using nuclear energy just because we don't trust Muslims.

Nick said at February 27, 2007 1:46 PM:

"Should all countries refrain from peaceful uses of nuclear power because a few (primarily Muslim) countries will use nuclear materials to make bombs?"

It's a good question. I'm leaning that way, as I think renewables provide a better solution all around. I think some people feel that way very, very strongly, especially those who oppose nuclear in countries like Germany.

I would argue that investments in nuclear represent an opportunity cost, as they represent a lost opportunity to increase our use of renewables. Greater use of renewables would advance the state of the art, reduce costs, and allow us to demonstrate that they are a real solution. I think we really are in a difficult spot, arguing that we can reserve nuclear technology to ourselves, and keep it from other countries based on their politics, current relationship to the US, religion, or whatever. If we had a real alternative to offer, one that we relied on ourselves, we would be in a much, much stronger position.

If we had wind and solar technology that was a demonstrable solution to the energy needs of North Korea, for instance, everybody would be happier. They would get their energy needs met, with low costs and with supply independence, and we wouldn't have to worry about the rationality of their leaders.

Such an approach to the world would have great benefits in terms of credibility and moral leadership. Such intangibles should not be discounted: they're the kind of thing that can make all the difference when abitrating peace deals or negotiating trade deals. Such political capital can be translated directly into financial capital.

Finally, even if we decide that these opportunity costs are acceptable we should acknowledge that there is a cost involved, and attempt to include that cost in our cost-benefit/ROI calculations, along with other externalities such as the Price-Anderson liability cap, decommissioning, waste disposal, etc. To not attempt to quantify these costs, and include them in our planning, is to risk making the wrong investments. Advocates for nuclear should not be afraid to confront these issues, discuss them openly and in an evenhanded way, and quantify them.

Robert Schwartz said at February 27, 2007 1:50 PM:

This may be a little late but I thought you might appreciate the reference:

"Windmills aren't the answer", by Colby Cosh in National Post on November 21/2006

In May, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) announced that the province's grid could not safely accommodate more than 900 megawatts of wind-power generation, a target that will be met late next year. ... In Ontario, meanwhile, the grid operator warned late last month that 5,000 MW – about one-fifth of the province's current peak consumption – is probably the absolute technological limit.

... The problem, as engineers skeptical of wind power have been yelping for decades, is that power usage and production constantly have to be balanced in an electrical grid. Adding too much unstable, unpredictable power to the system creates a risk of failure and cascading blackouts. In fact, the EU is investigating the possible role of Germany's heavy wind-dependence in causing a Nov. 6 blackout that hit 10 million Europeans.

... This wouldn't be such a big deal if wind output were naturally synchronized with patterns of maximum power usage. But a report released last Wednesday by Energy Probe, Ontario's independent power think tank, confirms another longstanding taunt of the wind skeptics: Wind is often utterly out of sync with human activity.

Energy Probe's analysis of hour-to-hour capacity factors at Ontario wind farms shows output declining disconcertingly in the morning, just when we greedy energy hogs are getting out of bed, turning on appliances and lights, and going to work. On a month-to-month basis, data from this summer show wind output remaining flattest during the hottest periods. ...

But at least it's still economically free energy, right? Well, maybe. As an internationally observed rule of thumb, wind farms are expected to deliver, on average, 30% of their theoretical maximum power output. On the basis of partial data, Energy Probe expects the three major farms in its study to come in at 24%-27% over a full 12 months. And that's not even including the showpiece Windshare turbine at Toronto's CNE, which delivered a mean capacity factor of just 14.7% in its first 42 months of operation.

Nick said at February 28, 2007 8:28 AM:


That Energy Probe analysis by Tom Adams is a preliminary study of 3 very small windfarms (total nameplate capacity = 200MW) in a small area, for a very short period (7 months). The study actually found a very small negative correlation between demand and wind output, not the "utterly out of sync with human activity" stated in the article. The article misquotes and misinterprets the study, which is intended to be a preliminary planning document. If you look closely at Energy Probe you'll see that Adams is very negative on nuclear and coal, and pessimistic about new hydro. In other words, he's pretty tough on all new generation.


I was interested to see an article in the Christian Science Monitor on nuclear power vs proliferation. The CSM has been long considered one of the top 3 US newspapers for internation coverage (along with the WSJ and NYT). Here's what they have to say:

"...the huge increases in energy demand anticipated across the developing world over the next two decades, coupled with a growing urgency about global warming, have nuclear nonproliferation experts focused on Iran's case for broader and even more unsettling reasons. If a sense of entitlement to nuclear power and the fuel that makes it possible is allowed to take root, they say, the world soon could find itself with dozens of nuclear countries with the means to switch from peaceful energy production to building a nuclear arsenal virtually overnight."

See the rest here http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0227/p01s01-wogi.htm

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