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Lets Stop Pretending Nuclear Power Is Commercially Viable

Lets Stop Pretending Nuclear Power Is Commercially Viable

First its new president, Jean-Bernard Levy, said French state utility EDF would delay a decision on its joint French-Chinese nuclear project in the UK, Hinkley Point. That was over a year ago. Then the CFO of EDF, Thomas Piquemal, quit reportedly because he opposed the project on financial grounds. That was a short time ago. Then after a slew of leaked memos, the French government just announced that EDF would be raising more money and the Hinkley decision would now come in September.

David Cameron’s government in the UK backs this exceedingly expensive project and the French government controls both EDF and Areva, the nuclear manufacturer that developed the nuclear system to be used at Hinkley Point. (Two other plants in Finland and China using this technology are still under construction, behind schedule and over budget.) As part of a plan to rescue Areva (which has lost money in each of the past four years and has negative equity, meaning the shareholder investment has been wiped out), EDF agreed, earlier in the year to buy Areva’s nuclear engineering division. Clearly, France views its nuclear ambitions as a matter of national prestige and intends to support Hinkley Point. Related: Big Oil Surprises Analysts, Is The Worst Behind Us?

Now for the finances. These British nuclear units will cost roughly £18 billion ($27 billion). EDF has already sold a 35 percent share to the Chinese state nuclear company. However EDF still has to find more outside investors and get its ownership of the plant below 50 percent or it will have to consolidate Hinkley Point on its books and show all of the project’s debt on its own balance sheet.

At the end of 2015, long and short-term debt made up 79 percent of EDF’s capital, an already high number, and two of the three major bond rating agencies have assigned EDF's debt a “negative outlook." EDF also needs more capital to take over Areva, finish the French nukes still under construction and refurbish its own domestic fleet of aging nuclear power stations. All this will take place during what amounts to a financial crisis within the European electricity markets. Related: Has the Oil Price Rally Gone Too Far?

So the French government just announced a $4.5 billion capital raising for EDF (the government will buy the lion’s share of the newly issued stock). But from the look of the numbers that share offering constitutes a modest fraction of what is required by a firm that will have to compete more and more in a competitive electricity market.

Last year EDF reported a return on shareholder investment of less than 5 percent (an adequate return for bondholders not stockholders). To reduce the total debt burden to a more manageable 70 percent would require the sale of another $16 billion of stock, a painful process, especially for existing shareholders when returns and share prices are so depressed. More than likely EDF will explore asset sales and other ingenious means to rearrange assets in order to shore up its overly indebted balance sheet. Related: $500 Billion In Lost Oil Revenues Forces Gulf Nations To Turn To Debt Markets

If we were gamblers we would not wager that EDF will take the obvious first step towards restoring its financial health and cancels the Hinkley project. Of course, if David Cameron loses the Brexit vote (a referendum to take the UK out of the European Union) and is ejected from Number Ten Downing Street, a new Prime Minister might take a more skeptical view of Hinkley Point.

The real point of this story is that nuclear power is not commercially viable but has become a state-sponsored technology. There is nothing wrong with state supported technology. But we could save a lot of time and money by not pretending that it is something else.

By Leonard Hyman and William Tilles for Oilprice.com

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  • Charlie on April 30 2016 said:
    Hmmm....... When I googled power prices in Europe, France (80% nuclear) was the lowest of all the Western European countries and Denmark and Germany (the countries pushing wind and solar and ditching nuclear)were almost twice as much. Maybe this article is knee deep in bull crap about nuclear bring too expensive.
  • Bob Wallace on April 30 2016 said:
    Actually, if you look at just the cost of electricity, omit taxes and levies, Denmark has lower priced electricity than France.

    The cost of electricity in France is lower than that of many western European countries but that's largely due to their large number of paid off nuclear reactors. Those reactors are now getting older and will need to be refurbished or replaced. That will cause French electricity prices to take a big jump. And that's why France is in the process of closing about one-third of their reactors and replacing them with renewables.
  • Bob Wallace on April 30 2016 said:
    It looks like nuclear is finished in the US.

    "’It would be very difficult for any company to make a decision to try to build a new nuclear plant,’ says Mike Twomey, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear, which runs nuclear power plants.

    Entergy has already taken one unprofitable reactor offline in Vermont and plans to close two more plants that are losing money in upstate New York and Massachusetts.”

    Entergy is the largest nuclear plant operator in the US.

    "’We think that the costs of new nuclear right now are not competitive with other zero-carbon technologies, renewables and storage that we see in the marketplace,’ says Joe Dominguez, executive vice president for governmental and regulatory affairs and public policy at Exelon, a nuclear power company that has announced plans to close one of its existing reactors in New Jersey.

    Three other plants that are losing money in Illinois and upstate New York are also being reviewed for possible closure, Dominguez says.

    ‘Right now we just don't have any plans on the board to build any new reactors,’ he says.”

    Exelon is the second largest nuclear plant operator in the US. Entergy and Exelon own and operate about 25% of all US reactors.

    “Mycle Schneider, a nuclear industry analyst, says nuclear also faces growing price pressure from wind and solar. Renewable energy is so cheap in some parts of the U.S. that it's even undercutting coal and natural gas.

    ‘We are seeing really a radical shift in the competitive markets which leave nuclear power pretty much out in the rain,’ Schneider says.’”

  • Jim Decker on May 01 2016 said:
    Every day, Oilprice publishes another leftist piece of nonsense. This is the one for today.

    The only reason nuclear energy is expensive is because governments and the leftists the run them want it to be expensive. If wind mills were built tot he exacting specifications of nuclear power plants, the landscape would not be covered with windmills. This is all about government regulation and then the author claims it is governments that want the nuclear power plants. What nonsense!

    There is a plan to build submarine scale nuclear plants in a factory and then run then in parallel on land. That could cut the regulatory costs dramatically. Don't worry- the leftists will find something else wrong with this plan.

    In some countries, such as South Korea, regulations are reasonable and nuclear costs are lower than any other power source. Of course, they don't have our natural gas sources.

    Tomorrow's leftist diatribe- another hit piece on fracking.
  • Leslie Corrice on May 01 2016 said:
    Let's stop pretending that nuclear is NOT commercially viable. Also stop pretending to be objective about nuclear - Fossil fuels companies are scared to the beejeezus that nukes will eventually put them out of the electricity business. And they WILL!
  • Rod Adams on May 01 2016 said:
    Condemning nuclear energy because of capital raising challenges at Hinckley C is about as valid as declaring oil to be obsolete and uncompetitive because Petrobras hasn't been able to raise sufficient funds to pursue its enormous off-shore discoveries -- yet.

    The energy market is a rough and tumble place to do business, partly because selling prices vary widely over short time spans while projects often take a decade or two to plan and complete while requiring tens of billions in risk capital.

    One solution is going smaller; many innovators in nuclear are exploring technology adaptations and business models that are new to the nuclear industry.

    Though Hinckley C may deserve a negative final investment decision, it's way too early to declare nuclear fission to be an uncompetitive loser.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
  • McKay on May 01 2016 said:
    Not really Charlie. Posted prices for electricity are huge game in and of themselves. They do not include time of use rates, demand charges, nuclear stranded costs as separate line items, disposal costs, and disconnected costs of environmental damage and of course the cost and burden on governments as in the case of accidents such as 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and the unmitigated disaster which is Fukushima. France plays the same hide the true cost game with its nuke industry generated power. Such realities are never included in posted electricity prices. But for guys like you perhaps nuclear is the best and only option and all the huge safety and financial risks that go with it. However for an increasing number of people the alternative sources you seem to dislike so much are looking more and more like they will be ones going forward.
  • Keith Pickering on May 01 2016 said:
    Fossil fuels have enormous external costs that also effectively make them state-supported technologies. Shouldn't we be equally honest about that?
  • Kelly on May 01 2016 said:
    Charlie, where are your sources? And how much of the electricity price is tax? After the tax is removed, what is the real price?

    Nuclear is not feasible for the environment. Scientists have been playing around for 70 plus years and have no place to store the waste, which must be stored and maintained for a million years. Why is the responsibility of the next 100,000 generations to store and maintain the waste? How is that economically feasible?

    And what are the health care costs associated with ,gaining, leaking and melted out NPPs? Better to a little more for electricity generated by wind than killing off the planet with a madman's experiment.
  • Rod Adams on May 02 2016 said:
    I've given up trying to change minds of people like Bob Wallace. He has a mission and a mantra that he repeats all over the web.

    (BTW, Bob, you have Entergy and Exelon mixed up. Exelon is the largest nuclear plant operator in the US. With its recent acquisition of Constellation Energy, it now owns and operates 22 nuclear units at 15 different sites. Entergy owns 10 units and has announced plans to close 2 of them already.)

    There is no doubt that sub $2/MMBTU natural gas has hurt the economics of operating nuclear plants. So has the 38% increase (after inflation) in additional capital expenditures that have been imposed by regulatory changes in the past dozen years. Those changes were not improvements in safety or security; they were pushed by anti-nuclear activists taking advantage of unrelated crises.

    The two major events adding to nuclear energy costs were jet fuel laden airplanes hitting tall commercial buildings or large military headquarters and plant damage (with no negative health effects from radiation) resulting from a multi-day power failure after an enormous tsunami wave in Japan.

    Nuclear technology, however, is not down and out. There are thousands of very bright people working daily to take better advantage of the natural advantages of having an energy dense, emission-free, abundant fuel source.

    Long term "waste" is a manufactured issue. Unfortunately, the government and the established industry have cooperated with nuclear energy competitors to blow it entirely out of proportion.

    No one has ever been harmed by accidental exposure to reusable nuclear fuel or any other products of commercial nuclear energy production. The material is only dangerous if you get too close without shielding. After a 150 years or so, the only remaining danger would come from physically ingesting lightly-used fuel rods.

    Future generations will thank us if we stop consuming so much of their natural gas, oil and coal resources and instead leave both those fuels AND the already large and growing reservoir of power represented by what we, with our rather primitive nuclear technology, call "waste."

    95% of the material's original potential energy remains in used fuel assemblies. We've even found a few good ways to recycle and reuse it that have -- so far -- been blocked by a few oil & gas dependent governments.

    The US is included in that group, but changes are afoot.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
  • Rod Adams on May 02 2016 said:
    I was curious about one of Bob Wallace's sources -- Mycle Schneider -- so I did what any internet user would do.


    Here is a sample quote from the Book of Knowledge called Wikipedia:

    "Mycle Schneider founded the "citizen's science" group WISE-Paris in 1983 and directed it until 2003. Schneider has been described as an 'Anti-Nuclear Activist'."

    He's also "lead author of The World Nuclear Industry Status Reports" a well known series of reports that focuses on the negatives associated with nuclear without acknowledging its benefits, like massive, reliable amounts of emission-free electricity that are independent of both major oil and gas multinationals and oiligarchies (deliberate misspelling) like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

    Schneider is famous enough to rate his own wiki page. He is an often cited "expert". His point of view, however, is about as biased as mine, but from the opposite direction.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
  • G.R.L. Cowan on May 02 2016 said:
    Fossil fuels have enormous external costs, but as we use them more, the increase in those external costs doesn't translate into a reduction in civil service headcount. Quite the reverse: the more fossil fuels are burnt, the more government makes on them.

    That appears to determine what lies get told about nuclear energy. It is a lifesaver, but government can profit by spending the lives it would save. It doesn't really have a waste problem, but fossil fuels do. It isn't really exhaustible, but fossil fuels are.
  • Nathan on May 02 2016 said:
    At what point in the consequences of global warming does nuclear energy become not only viable but essential?
  • Charlie on May 02 2016 said:
    Bob Wallace, whatever, Denmark is the highest when it comes to price of power and Germany is number 2. Renewables aren't taking down Nuclear, cheap Natural gas is. In China, where they don't have their head in the sand because they've learned that Wind can't do the job alone, they are building a lot of new reactors. Maybe we'll wake up when we realize how much pollution they're going to be removing from their skies and follow suit. Also Nuclear can be a lot cheaper, safer, and efficient but poor policy decisions have left us with old designs that still outperform renewables in reliability and price.
  • Bill Rodgers on May 02 2016 said:
    I can agree that super sized reactors are becoming state sponsored activities. I can also agree that SMRs are currently state sponsored activities due to the current regulatory enviromment. That is, I can agree if we can agree that most aspects of any electric grid involve state sponsorship of one form or another:

    Wind/Solar/Storage require a extremely large involvement from the state as noted by the favorable financial incentives promised by the various states. Additionally, the state promotes, institutes and enforces regulations favorable to wind, solar and storage. Otherwise those three technologies would not be were they are today.

    Fossil fuels require various forms of indirect state involvement and sponsorship. Such as externalized costs due to accidents that cause environmental damage. The costs to a company are capped at the company level thereby requiring the state to pick up the remaining cleanup costs.

    However, what I don't see in this article is any discussion of a) how to reduce cost for initial build of nuclear power plants large or small and b) how the declaration that nuclear power requires state support would fundamentally change the financial picture for nuclear power.

    Just stating nuclear power plants should be declared a state sponsored activity because Hinkley is going to hugely expensive doesn't seem to move the ball forward. I am left asking what would change? The cost is the cost no matter if a private company is trying to finance it in the "open" market (since EDF is partially owned by the French government) or by a government that must raise the same level of capital through taxes or bonds. There would be a different risk profile if the government was declared the financier and possible owner but there would still be a large risk cost due to the lengthy design-license-build cycle.

    To me the question isn't whether or not nuclear power should be declared a state sponsored activity but HOW to reduce the cost no matter who is paying to build new nuclear power plants. Additionally, the question of how to ensure the money is properly spent on appropriate risk/reward scenarios must be addressed for all power generation sources since several sources currently have extremely favorable terms for the financiers that do not properly reflect the long term risks (i.e. wind and solar).
  • Bas Gresnigt on May 03 2016 said:
    "These British nuclear units will cost roughly £18 billion ($27 billion)."

    That was UK government estimation. But, UK had to ask the EU in Brussels permission for the project*), so EU accountants repeated the calculation and concluded that the project will cost
    £25.5 billion ($35billion)!

    Assume the EU accountants operated in coordination with the UK government accountants, as UK government accepted the new figure.

    *) UK government had to ask Brussels permission because it will subsidize the electricity production of Hinkley which is forbidden in the EU because it disturbs free competition.

    And those subsidies are huge and many. A few:
    - £10B loan guarantee which represents a subsidy of ~£30/MWh (=$44) on the electricity Hinkley may produce (90?, 8%);
    - Inflation corrected guaranteed price for all produced electricity during 35yrs.
    That price is now £102/MWh (=$144 or €130) while av. whole sale price of electricity in UK was ~£40/MWh (=$60) in 2015.
    In Germany it was €31/MWh in 2015 (may bottom out at €25 in next yrs).
  • Ike Bottema on May 03 2016 said:
    I guess someone forgot to tell Ontario that the jig's up.


  • Steve on May 03 2016 said:
    "At what point in the consequences of global warming does nuclear energy become not only viable but essential? "

    Well NYC is going to be underwater in 2015, so that will wake everyone up. Oh Wait.
  • abinico warez on May 03 2016 said:
    When you factor in the costs of maintaining radioactive wastes for 250,000 years, it is a no brainer that nuclear is not economically viable.
  • A. Magnus on May 04 2016 said:
    The only reason the nuclear industry exists as it does today is to provide a ready supply of fissile material for a protracted nuclear war. Using radioactive decay to boil water to turn steam turbines is a stupid thing to do given that NOBODY has figured out what to do with all the waste. That's the whole point - with everybody dead from a nuclear exchange there will be nobody to care about the waste, now will there?

    Thorium would work just as well and it cannot reach 'critical mass' like the 3 reactors in Fukushima did. That technology was suppressed so that the military industrial dumbass complex can have their Uranium and Plutonium isotopes to keep the population in check. The nuclear industry as it stands today is the product of a death cult and its promoters are inbred, ivory tower imbeciles who think they will never have to live with the consequences of their actions.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on May 04 2016 said:
    'abinico warez' — not if that factoring is done honestly. In recent decades uranium ore grades have been increasing, and recent issues of the IAEA's biennial "Red Book", which includes a summation of known high-grade ore deposits' uranium content, typically have been reporting that that total has increased 1000 tonnes per day over the two-year interval since the previous edition.

    Nevertheless, the stuff must someday become scarce. I looked at a case where, over a 140-year period starting about 1960, humanity puts 13 million tonnes of it through water-cooled reactors, then quits because the stuff is becoming too hard to find. During that time we average about twice as much nuclear power as we're using now, but then it ends, and we still have 13 million tonnes of nuclear waste to deal with.

    Seven generations on, in the year 2310, where are we? The radioactivity has diminished to 490 megawatts.

    That's a lot of radioactivity. To know how big a lot it is, we need context. "How much uranium is in the Earth? Predictions for geoneutrinos at KamLAND" (http://www.fe.infn.it/u/mantovani/CV/Paper/Fiorentini_05b.pdf) can provide it, for it actually deals not just with uranium but with the big three irradiators of people from below: uranium, thorium, and potassium-40. (Radiopotassium is actually pretty minor in terms of rays coming up from the ground, but because of potassium's biological essentiality, it absolutely dominates the job of irradiating us from within.)

    This is the context that it provides:

    "The masses estimated within the BSE account for the present radiogenic production of 19 TW ..."

    In those units, the radioactivity left from the fission era, seven generations after its (implausibly early) end, is 0.00049 TW. So in planetary terms it's a very small lot: the natural inventory is tens of thousands of times greater. Even the ocean has several times this.
  • Leonard S.Hyman and William I. Tilles on May 05 2016 said:
    Let’s look at the issues. First, old nuclear plants produce cheap power. Their prices only need cover fuel and current operating costs. They paid off their mortgages, so to speak, years ago. France has relatively low prices because it operates so many old nukes but it will have to spend billions to keep them running and new nuclear facilities will cost far more. Cost of power from old nukes has no relevance to future costs. We need new nuclear plants presumably to reduce carbon emissions. Do other resources (wind, solar, replacement of coal by natural gas, LED lighting, etc) do the same for less? From numbers we have seen, we’d say that that a new nuclear plant has no real cost advantage.

    Second, nuclear power projects have disadvantages in a market economy. They require massive capital commitments over many years, so they are vulnerable to changes in market conditions and technology during construction. Most companies are too small to undertake the projects. Difficulty at one project could sink a company. Nuclear plants have high fixed costs and require steady income flows, not something available in electricity markets. Perhaps energy policymakers chose the wrong objective by designing short term markets that produced marginal benefits to consumers instead of doing something more important like saving the planet. As it is, Investors believe that nuclear risk is higher, so they demand a higher return on their capital. Do nuclear benefits offset higher cost of capital?

    Third, consider Hinkley Point. The Conservatives always liked nuclear power and this deal seemed most likely given the interest of the French government in finding markets for the new French reactor design not yet operating anywhere. ( Two plants under construction are over budget and behind schedule.) Note, though, that the French government will not invest in Hinkley Point but rather in the builder. EDF could use the money for something else, if it drops the project. To complicate matters, Areva, the French state nuclear engineer that EDF plans to buy, has admitted safety issues with the reactor vessels that would be used at Hinkley Point. The UK’s Office of Nuclear Regulation admitted that it was “aware of reports of possible falsification” of documents. Does a heavily subsidized nuclear power deal that may not get off the ground but will produce power at several times the going price and commit consumers to payment for six decades if it does offer a better deal than alternatives? We’re dubious. If the plant produced power from peanuts but had the same economics we’d still be dubious.

    Finally, does it matter if a project is a pretend- private- endeavor with numerous unexplained subsidies keeping it going or an openly government-owned or regulated project? We’d say yes, because legislative oversight or government regulation would force an open examination of costs and profits and might even save money on financing costs. In the end, nuclear power is not a religion. It is one more way of producing electricity. That’s how we should assess it.
  • simple-touriste on May 05 2016 said:
    "Actually, if you look at just the cost of electricity, omit taxes and levies, Denmark has lower priced electricity than France."

    Source of that lie?

    "And that's why France is in the process of closing about one-third of their reactors and replacing them with renewables"

    No, you are making up stuff.

    France is in the process of making its extremely robust nuclear plants even more anything-proof.
  • D R on May 07 2016 said:
    Some here try to politicize this issue. I am a Republican. Nuclear safety is not a left/right issue, we all drink the same water and breath the same air. I do not believe nuclear is a safe technology, the risks of an accident are too great. Its not like a peanut butter factory where if you screw up it comes out chunky rather than smooth. This radioactive waste is extremely dangerous and has long term cumulative effects on DNA. Despite all of the safety systems a screw up will happen. the safety systems add new points of failure and do not gaurantee anything. The safety systems can fail as they did in Japan. A bad generator, a damaged cooling line, even on the AP1000 a charge may not fire to open an emergency coolant flow. The cost of an accident is so high that you have to have 100% safety gaurantee and NOTHING can gaurantee that. As US plants age, the parts become more fragile, corrosion happens, pipes leak. The plants in the US are so old that they are no longer safe, to make them safe you would have to replace most of the plant, to the point where its cheaper to just build a new plant. All of these old plants when their license is extended will be running with reduced safety because they are being allowed to push it past its prime with aging components rather than to replace the whole thing. The US has a fleet of run down, decrepit, aging old plants. None of the licenses for them should be renewed. If They want to continue to run plants, maybe we should terminate all current reactor licenses and license safer new AP1000 in about 10 select locations nationally, with multiple reactors on the same site, even 10 or 11, to concentrate the danger to a few carefully monitored geographic locations, and safe store the rest of the sites. 70% of US plants leak radioactivity. THe industry downplays the toxicity of radioactivity, dont believe it, its probably much more toxic than is admitted. They have every reason to downplay it and they can just hope that the damage to peoples health isnt too serious but the fact is, the limits on radioactivity are basically body bag counts to decide how much life will be sacrificed, there is no safe level for any of that stuff.
  • Dr. A. Cannara on May 08 2016 said:
    Oops, the subsidized combustion folks are getting nervous! Wasn't 2005 repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 enough to make oil/gas/coal (especially gas) a permanently profitable future for power?

    Darn those Chinese, making nuke plants for $2B/reactor in 3 years!
  • Rudy Stefenel on May 08 2016 said:
    Here are some facts to digest:

    We can't solve the world's pollution and climate-change change with “renewables” for very simple reasons.

    Massive Wind and solar (renewables) produce electricity much less than half the time so they require “back up” most of the time. That “back up” has been and will be from fossil fuels (mostly natural gas and coal) unless we do something different.

    To say it more accurately, massive fossil fuels get a tiny bit of back up from massive intermittent renewables much less than half the time. How on earth can anyone dispute that?

    The only massive electricity source that can possibly replace fossil fuels so far is nuclear.

    Hey, pollution is killing many millions of people a year world wide. Most of that comes from burning coal. We can't go on like that. Nuclear is the only way to go.

    We need to keep the world's existing 435 nuclear plants on-line as long as we can safely to get time to get the new Generation IV Molten Salt Reactors on-line. They don't have any of the parts in their design related to the nuclear reactor accidents of the past. Also they can produce electricity cheaper than burning coal.

    See ThoriumEnergyAlliance.com

    This organization has lots of Physicists, Chemists, Engineers, and advocates who have studied this in detail and produced lots of reports, YouTube videos. Also you will find web sites of organizations all over the world that are promoting Molten Salt Reactors too. In fact, several corporations are working to get Molten Salt Reactors on-line.
  • Randy Jacobson on May 09 2016 said:
    Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors LFTRs are the future. One thing the previous poster failed to mention is that they can burn existing nuclear waste as fuel and safely dispose of forever.
  • TS Gordon on May 10 2016 said:
    Jeff Rense is the only American journalist who provides a regular update on the death of the Pacific ocean. Sadly, this ongoing 'die off' is being caused by an unstoppable flow of thoughtless nuclear engineering.

    If there are trade-offs worth considering, one would be to re-burn the spent fuel as LFTR advocates promise their machines could do. Which of 'your' companies can insure that there will be no more Fukushima's, and no significant dirty-bombs, (read direct-hits,) over the remaining life of the current reactors?

    Just upstream from NYC, another Fukushima awaits just such an intervention.

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