Nuclear risk economics

- Einstein's reaction upon learning of the Hiroshima Nuclear bombing in WWII.

What is the true cost of nuclear power - when you include the risk of accidents?
In 2010 India made private companies liable for these risks - which revealed that the technology is commercially unviable:

The Indian law limits the operator’s liability to Rs 1,500 crore  but in case of an accident, victims could find shelter in the law of Torts that can potentially lead to unlimited damages to be claimed from equipment suppliers.  John Flannery, outgoing President and Chief Executive Officer of GE in India said GE will rather give up business than play within India’s civil nuclear liability rules.

“If the [civil nuclear] liability law stays the way it is, we won’t pursue the business.”

Flannery knows other companies, French and Russian, are nosing ahead in the race but points out that they are backed by the government.

He is very clear about his own: “We are a private enterprise and we just can’t take that kind of risk profile”

GE's position tells the truth about the cost of nuclear risk that all the pro-nuclear industry reports will hide.
I bet the French and Russian Treasuries aren't happy about being exposed to these risks (hopefully GE's position will wake up their governments to the risk).
Now in 2017, France's new President Macron has also commented skeptically on the cost of nuclear, saying,
And though he is "generally considered to be pro-nuclear", it seems France is committed to a gradual phase-out of its reliance on uneconomic, subsidised nuclear power.

I think an insurer would take a hard-nosed look at the industry track record (number of global accidents per power station years of operation), rather than swallow claims about the latest technology being much safer than the likes of Chernobyl (which will have to be managed for centuries), because I recall they said that about the Fukishima technology (before its accident), which, 6 years after the initial 2011 disaster, continues to pollute the entire Pacific Ocean and still poses an extreme risk (with record levels of radiation causing continued reactor damage & even killing clean-up robots).  As the HBO mini-series on Chernobyl tells (notwithstanding some artistic licence), without the fortunately successful emergency action that occurred (including worker sacrifice), it and perhaps also the Fukishima accident (see also here or attached) could have produced dramatically worse explosions, and even now the current situation at Fukishima in 2019 seems likely to require deliberate discharge of accumulated radioactive water into the ocean and is still at risk of further accident, for example from another tsunami.
The initial Fukishima disaster was caused by a 45m high tsunami, but compare that to the following tsunamis listed in this video:
  • 30m, Indian ocean, 2004
  • 85m, Japan, 1971
  • 100m, Japan, 1972
  • 250m, Italy, 1963 (which demolished a dam & 5 villages)
  • 524m, Alaska, 1958 (the most destructive tsunami ever recorded)
At best it will take decades to even locate, let alone remove & make safe the 600 tonnes of highly-radioactive molten nuclear fuel, which depends on inventing new technologies - i.e. there's currently no way of doing it!  Given past disaster sites at Windscale and Chernobyl have still not been made safe after more than 50 years (& surprise, surprise, were much worse than admitted at the time), it seems quite possible that another larger tsunami could obliterate Fukishima before it can be made safe.

For an objective risk assessment on a global scale, see the paper attached below (& corresponding xls) for my ball-park estimate of the risk and cost of nuclear power accidents and insurance - which seems likely to be over several $/W, thus making nuclear power uneconomic compared to current solar photovoltaic plus battery systems, even if the nuclear power plant, uranium fuel & operating costs were free!  And this still doesn't even consider the cost of decommissioning and handling of radioactive fuel waste for hundreds of years to come!

Undeterred, the latest self-serving, fantasy promise from the nuclear industry is to achieve low costs through mass production of "Small Modular Reactors".  But if the nuclear industry was expanded to support this approach and to materially combat global warming, through, say, a tripling of the number of reactors over 30 years (adding 30 new reactors p.a., as per the attached xls), then I estimate that this major growth of nuclear power would almost guarantee a very serious accident within the next 10-30 years, and (ignoring even more expensive & less commercially viable 'fast-breeder' reactors) would also deplete global uranium resources within the same period - before the end of the planned lifetime of new plants built!

Yet even excluding these risks and clean-up costs, the cost of just constructing nuclear power plants repeatedly turns out to be many times what proponents claim, and vastly more than renewables + storage, so just about the only advocates for nuclear these days are vested interests like the Minerals Council of Australia (whose members just want to dig up & flog uranium) and right-wing lunatics who seem to back it just to "generate another fight with the green left", even though the average economic loss for a 1GW nuclear plant has been about Є5bn - which is why the US, France & others are now abandoning it.

Sure, Thorium reactors have the potential to be a lot safer, cleaner and sustainable as a longer-term power source, but being possibly better than something that's an unmitigated environmental & economic disaster hardly qualifies the technology for investment-grade status, and if the private sector won't finance its development - which they assuredly won't - then why on earth should taxpayers when there's no prospect of any public benefits compared to renewables and the chances of it being cheaper than solar & wind are now basically zilch? (The one company that was pursuing Thorium reactors - Lightbridge - has now switched to focus on traditional uranium fuel, for which they've also failed to get government subsidies.)

What total environmental and economic madness the nuclear power industry is!  No rational investor would continue to chase the illusory nuclear dream, and if we don’t put it to bed soon, it will start to generate real nightmares.
The only real reason for building nuclear power stations has been to develop nuclear weapons, which no-one with any morality would use anyway.  So it's good to see that increasingly (except when it's propped up by subsidies from states with political/military motives), renewables are leaving nuclear behind, where it belongs.

David Thorp,
10 Aug 2019, 05:55
David Thorp,
13 Feb 2017, 01:31