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Nuclear Is Cheaper Than Solar Thermal

I’m a big fan of TIME reporter Mike Grunwald and often think that he and Breakthrough are among the only people who really understand that Obama’s signature climate policies are not fuel economy standards or power plant regulations, but the tens of billions invested in clean energy technology and innovation.

But as much as I admire his commitment to innovation and clean technology, I have to disagree with him on the economics and technological challenges associated with renewable energy. Last week, Grunwald wrote a long celebration of the coming solar revolution in TIME, featuring a new solar plant with integrated energy storage while shrugging off new nuclear power for its “exorbitant costs.”

The plant in question is Crescent Dunes in Nevada, a first-of-kind solar thermal facility with molten salt storage that will allow the plant to generate power even after the sun has gone down. The project is the recipient of a $737 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy and exemplifies what Grunwald calls “a new gold rush, launched after President Obama’s election.”

But if next-generation power technologies that promise lower costs are so exciting, it’s a wonder that Grunwald highlights Crescent Dunes while panning nuclear. The Vogtle nuclear plants coming online near Atlanta generate a kilowatt of power at half the cost of Crescent Dunes. They will also generate roughly 30 times as much power annually.

Crescent Dunes is a 110-megawatt power plant with total reported capital costs of $910 million, according to its website. That’s $8,200 per kilowatt. The Vogtle reactors — also DOE loan guarantee recipients — are a combined 2,234 megawatts at a reported cost of about $14 billion, or $6,700 per kilowatt.

The Vogtle reactors will generate full power roughly 90 percent of the time. Even with the ability to store power once the sun has gone down, Crescent Dunes will only generate power about 50 percent of the time. After you adjust for capacity factor, or the actual production of a power plant as a proportion of nameplate capacity, Vogtle’s cost advantage is enormous.   

We shared this graph with Mike on Twitter, and he responded thusly: 

Grunwald defended his dismissal of Vogtle by arguing that Crescent Dunes is a first-of-kind plant featuring energy storage, while nuclear is an old technology. But so is solar thermal, which dates to the 18th century. The first solar thermal plant with built-in energy storage was built in 1904.

What Grunwald really means is that the particular molten salt storage technology used by the Crescent Dunes plant is first-of-kind. Then again, so are many features of the Vogtle plants. Vogtle’s are the first AP1000 reactors being built in the United States and among the first to begin construction anywhere in the world. They boost passive cooling systems and key modular components. Plants like these will be less encumbered with expensive redundant safety systems and will benefit from economies of manufacturing scale. (For more information, see Breakthrough’s report How to Make Nuclear Cheap.) 

If Vogtle is completed on time and under budget, as it is on track to do, we will see if other utilities take the plunge on the AP1000. With future demand growth uncertain, many utilities may not be willing to make 1 to 2 gigawatt bets on energy demand far into the future. But it is notable that there are 8 licenses pending for new AP1000s, with many utilities waiting on the sidelines to see how Southern Company, the utility building Vogtle, fares.

By contrast, there are zero solar thermal with energy storage projects planned or under construction in the United States outside of Crescent Dunes. Even among ardent renewables advocates, solar thermal is widely considered to be a challenged technology, as photovoltaic panels are now cheaper in many contexts. 

Grunwald writes, “The more renewables are deployed, the cheaper they’re becoming to deploy” thanks to economies of scale, learning curves, etc. This is undoubtedly true for solar panels and wind turbines, but renewables continue to suffer from intermittency and energy density challenges that actually push system costs up over time as penetrations increase.

And though Grunwald anticipates “dramatic reductions in ‘soft costs’ like permitting, marketing and installation,” those are unlikely to come without long-term, sustained subsidies to scale the industry up. Unlike price declines in solar manufacturing, economies of scale for solar soft costs, as we pointed out a year ago, don’t spill over from one economy to another. Germany’s $100 billion in solar subsidies over the last decade have helped drive down the cost of modules for everyone. But Germany’s solar installation costs have offered little benefit here. To achieve similar reductions in the installed cost of solar panels will likely require a similar scale of subsidies in the United States. 

The world of energy technology and energy economics can be impenetrable at times, but it isn’t too hard to see what’s wrong with Grunwald’s claim. A solar thermal plant providing power to 70,000 homes for $1 billion, compared to a nuclear plant providing power to 2 million homes at half the cost per unit of productive capacity, is no revolution. 

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Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 16, 2014 12:54 pm GMT

Good article, thanks for it.

FWIW, I expect that solar thermal with molten salt storage could plausibly compete with $6700/kW nuclear eventually. It wouldn’t surprise me. But that is not the real challenge. The challenge is to compete with $2500/kW nuclear, let alone $1500 nuclear, which is what’s coming within a few decades as the deployment of new nuclear capacity (whether it’s AP1000, EPR, VVER, etc) starts to intensify. The very high costs of new nuclear today are temporary and have to do with a host of non-technical issues which will be sorted out in due time.

Moreover, molten salt storage technology could benefit 4th generation nuclear as well. It could be used to enable better load-following perhaps. Or perhaps it could even allow a single (4th gen) nuclear power plant to provide baseload AND peak load, both economically!?


Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Jun 16, 2014 2:05 pm GMT

The main advantage of CSP over PV is that it’s much easier to store heat than it is to store electricity. So I see some advantages to CSP with storage when working as a peaking plant, as it presumably replaces natural gas. That presumes that a CSP plant will be selling into a deregulated wholesale electricity market, where presumably the very high costs might be justified by the occasional ultra-high wholesale prices during summer afternoons.

That said, considering the cloudless geography needed to make CSP work reliably, it is unlikely that we will ever see very many of these plants. So first-of-a-kind is likely to be only-of-a-kind: we will never see economies of scale in CSP. It will always be expensive,

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 16, 2014 5:51 pm GMT

Thanks for the good article.

Reprocessing spent fuel and the global deployment of the closed cycle should be considered “mandatory”.

Alvin Weinberg (the inventor of the molten salt reactor, also terminated by near sited people) predected with precision, the amount of excess CO2 we would have in the air by now if the anti-nuclear people (which are just pro-fossil fuels in the name of solar and wind) got their way.

All the recent presidents are traitorous because they would rather appease political appeals than do the right thing: NUCLEAR. Obama continues in their anti-American footsteps by NOT wanting the U.S. to have the power necessary to both compete on the global level and to reverse the serious effects of excess CO2.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 16, 2014 6:58 pm GMT

Agree. Solar thermal is old technology with little production/cost improvements, neither in the past nor in the future.

It is passed by PV-solar’s production/costs improvements, in the past and even far more in the future.
Yields, now ~21%, continue to improve with ~0.5%/a, so in 2022 it will be ~25%. The path up towards 40% is clear. And just as with computer chips, the technology is convenient for total production automation…
Taking into account the long term cost decreases PV-solar installations will cost <$700/KW, producing electricity for 2-3cnt/KWh (no operating / variable costs) in 2030.

So nuclear power plants then can only earn money in the evening / night if the wind doesn’t blow. So they should earn their money in ~4000hrs/year as during the other hours solar & wind will drive wholesale prices down to near zero.
The NPP should also compensate the losses it makes during the 3740hrs/year with very low wholesale prices as it cannot regulate itself deep down as the new German coal plants can (the reason German utilities replace their baseload plants).

The nuclear P&L problem will get worse for nuclear, as prices for battery storage are predicted to come down with >10%/a during next decade…

“….renewables continue to suffer from … energy density challenges…”
Germany has 1.4million solar installations, almost all rooftop. They produce (av. yield ~15%) now 5% of its electricity.
Germany has ~80million roofs (barns, etc). Assume 50% will be covered, then the production of the 40million installations will be 125% of consumption. The new panels will have an av. yield of 20-23%, so actual production will become >150% of consumption.
And no land is used at all!
So I don’t see any energy density issue.

” But Germany’s solar installation costs have offered little benefit here”
In the Netherlands we have little solar, still the solar installation costs are also very low.
It is a matter of having a separate customer oriented grid operator

Utilities that also operate the grid, use their grid monopoly to hinder competition.
Senseless paperwork and inspections (here no inspection at all; the owner is responsible). 

Bill Woods's picture
Bill Woods on Jun 16, 2014 7:08 pm GMT

Vogtle is the poster child for new US nuclear; meanwhile the Summer plant flies under the radar despite costing a third less. I don’t understand the difference, since both plants are building pairs of AP1000s. Anyone know why?


Another solar/nuclear comparison, from the UAE:

Shams CSP:   600 e6 USD / 100 e6 W = 6  USD/Wpeak; @ 0.24 CF = 25 USD/Waverage

Barakah NPP:  20 e9 USD / 5.6 e9 W = 3.6 USD/Wp; @ 0.85 CF = 4.2 USD/Wave 

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Jun 16, 2014 11:33 pm GMT

My biggest problem with nuclear is how long it takes to build.  These two plants when fullly done and operational took nearly a decade to complete.  Solar and wind can be built in parallel and at incredible speeds.

We’ve seen how fast things can change in the power sector.  In 8-10 years significant changes can happen that have devastating impacts on the economics of nuclear plants.

Another point that wasn’t talked about was water usage.  Nuclear plants take enourmous amounts of water for cooling, wind and solar require close to 0.  Seeing as how drought is rampant in many parts of the US, that is significant.  You can build wind and solar in the middle of deserts, but you have to build nuclear by a prime water resource.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Jun 17, 2014 2:51 am GMT

Show me a nuclear plant that can get online in under 8 years in the western hemisphere please.


Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 17, 2014 4:18 am GMT

This is a non-issue.

Build 8 plants side-by-side/simultaneously in 8 years, we’d have an average of 1 plant per year.

These 8 plants will have a fraction of the footprint of a Wind Farm, and produce reliable cheap CO2 power for 60yrs, We could directly retire and replace 8 coal powered plants without killing or frying thousands of birds, or transforming the countryside into a mechanical eyesore.

Any more questions?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 17, 2014 6:33 am GMT

As mentioned upthread, solar thermal is mainly preferred over solar PV when energy storage is needed (the cost of thermal storage is roughly equal to the saving from using a smaller steam-turbine+generator).  It is also easier to make the case that solar thermal is made from abundant and environmentally friendly materials: steel and glass.

But solar PV enthusiasts often claim that batteries are becoming cheap enough than PV+batteries is becoming cheaper than nuclear.  SolarBuzz says that batteries currently cost $0.213/Watt-hour.  Assuming they will tolerate cycling to 50% depth-of-discharge, and if we want 14 hours of storage (for 24 hour per day operation in the summer), then the battery cost is $0.213*14/.50=$5.96/Watt.  If the batteries last 2000 days and replacement batteries are discounted at 5% per year, the total present value of 30 years worth of batteries is $19.83/W.  If the batteries are 80% efficient, and solar panels cost $2/Wpeak, then solar arrays for 1Watt of output and battery charging comes to $5.50/W.

The total cost of the batteries and PV system is $25.33/Watt.  Such a system, using tracking PV would achieve about 72% capacity factor in the southwest US, so the cost per average Watt of output is $35.19/Wavg

So Solar PV+batteries is even more expensive than solar thermal, and could not compete with baseload nuclear even if the cost fell by half (which is optimistic, since batteries for stationary use are mature and costs have not been falling).  The solar system also needs a large transmission build-out to average out local clouds, but even so, in the northern parts of the US and Europe a lot of fossil fuel backup would be uses in the winter.


If we use only 4 hours of batteries (i.e. peaking only), and cut the cost of PV and batteries in half, then the system costs $4.33/Watt, and has 42% capacity factor, for $10.32/Wavg.  So this system could potentially complement baseload nuclear, but only in areas with a summer peak in electrical demand, and only if nuclear stays at today’s high prices.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 17, 2014 6:51 am GMT

Was Fukushima really expensive?  The media reports (such as this one) throw around a figure of $58 billion for the cleanup (and probably very little of this is medically or scientifically justifiable).  This is the sum total damage done by not just one power plant, but a whole global fleet of Gen II nuclear plants, totalling about 375 GWatts.  Assuming an electricity cost of $50/MWh, and a capacity factor of 80%, this fleet will produce $7.9 trillion worth of electricity over their 60 year lives (the Japanese 42 GW nuclear fleet alone will make $880 billion worth of electricity over 60 years).

So no.  The Fukushima accident was not expensive, compared to the value of electricity produced by the nuclear industry.   Also, nuclear is much less dangerous than any plausible combination of renewables with fossil fuel backup (there are still zero deaths from Fukushima radiation, compared to 10,000 per year in the US from fossil fuel power plants).  See this United Nations committee report which predicts no detectable health impact from Fukushima radiation.  See NextBigFuture-Deaths_per_TWatt-Hour.


The really great news is that we already have Gen III nuclear technology.  And we know it will be a couple of orders of magnitude safer than Gen II reactors (neither western nations nor China is building Gen II anymore).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 18, 2014 3:00 am GMT

The western hemisphere only matters for the oil wars we fight and the technology we export.  The important energy comsumption and pollution release is now and will from henceforth occur in China and India and the rest of the developing world.

Nuclear plants in China get built in 4 years, for $2.5/Watt.  In India, nuclear costs only $1.7/Watt.  Sure, both of these countries are deploying renewable too, but the cost per Watt for wind and solar is about $1/Watt for them, so given the low capacity factors, that’s more like $4 per average Watt delivered.

So every time you build a wind or solar farm in these countries instead of a nuke, you are condeming the poor ratepayers to higher cost energy, and you are locking-in the fossil fuel backup and helping to develop the fossil fuel infrastructure to deliver the fossil fuel.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 17, 2014 6:40 am GMT

Water for cooling?  Ok, most people live near the ocean anyway.  For those communities near the desert, nuclear plants can be air-cooled, but this comes at a higher price, so maybe the optimal nuclear/solar mix uses more solar in desert climates (but we knew that anyway, due to summer electrical demand peaking).

The bottom line is that people need water, so deserts simply can’t support the large populations that coastal cities can.  The energy-water problem is solvable in several ways; it’s really agriculture that has the water problem.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 17, 2014 7:26 am GMT

Tell me why it is not possible to mass produce “just” a thousand advanced reactors in 20 years. Keep it intrinsic.

You want to talk energy storage issues? Advanced nuclear requires less of it.

How about NG backup? Advanced nuclear would use (much) less of it and utilize NG more efficiently (in its own, already hot, turbine).

How about potential? Advanced nuclear can power a future planetary civilization, whereas solar requires a full 2% of the land to do that unless all the enviro’s make everyone live in a cave.

Advanced high temp reactors can make liquid fuels from just air and water, for its own backup and for fuel cell powered vehicles. CSP could do that, however, at a greater expense (less capacity factor and more moving parts, more mass, more mainenance and relience on international treaty for the solar “have nots”).

How about wastes? All wastes from whatever source must be properly recycled or neutralized. Any remaining wastes must be isolated (such as the half trillion tons of excess CO2). Even the rather trivial waste component from solar would constitute more of a volume and for longer than that of advanced nuclear (you might want to try to prove me wrong on this one because I’m not sure just how much industrial waste is created per gigawattyear of solar).

I do know that a molten salt reactor of the type that Alvin Weinberg invented decades ago will generate a gigawattyear of electricity from just over a ton of thorium (that’s just one ton of nasty fission products to deal with for each city, per year until fusion is affordable). Allocate just one heavy machine type robot for that job (per city). Besides, we really do need to recycle a lot of old nuclear (un)spent fuel, I mean, seriously!

How about moving parts? The solid state electrical infrastructure and its storage invisioned by passionate solar enthusiasts (myself included) would not of themselves need any moving parts, however, would require an army of robotic assistants (trillions of moving parts???) mass producing, installing and… recycling and replacing renewable energy collection and storage components every twenty years or so… on the vast expanses.

Consider also, how much more biosphere killing fossil fuels will be required before your (and my) plan pans out if only intrinsic costs were figured (that is, the cheapest, most abundant way to 99% CO2 free, free of political BS)?

Solar can do the job IF it is allowed to occupy the vast expanses required as per the laws of physics to power an awesome 10,000,000,000 person planetary civilization. Solar is also good for “fill in” (such as for all led lighting, drying clothes, communications, etc). I’m not putting it down, just being practical.

There is NO reason for the anti-nuclear crowd to seek to stop the only source that can get us there without killing the planet.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 17, 2014 7:28 am GMT

Yes, large solar PV and wind deployments will hurt the economics of baseload powerplants like geothermal, solar thermal with storage, waste-to-energy, and nuclear.

Yes, fossil fuel plants like Germany’s dirty coal and US natural gas will continue to be viable in this scenario, and they are likely to supply most of the total electricity demand.

Fossil fuel lock-in is the result.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 17, 2014 7:41 am GMT

“…it is unlikely that we will ever see very many of these [CSP] plants

That is certainly the path we are currently on.  The old visions of desert solar energy powering the world via long distance HVDC transmission worked on paper, but people prefer the local jobs that local power plants deliver.  The nuclear vision seems much more viable in this regard.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 17, 2014 8:06 am GMT

These 8 plants have a far bigger foot print than:

– the 7.5MW Wind turbines; and / or
– the rooftop solar panels;

that can generate the same of even more energy (MWh).

Note that the space between wind turbine towers is used as usual.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 17, 2014 8:21 am GMT

We will need the power of advanced nuclear to properly sequester half a trillion tons of excess CO2.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 17, 2014 9:54 am GMT

In Germany rooftop PV-panel owners (<10KW) get 30% of the battery investment subsidized. That program is a great success. It targets:
– to take off load in your 4 (peak load) evening hours;
– decrease the costs of those battery installations, just as the Germans did with solar.

Expectations are that the subsidy will be no needed at ~2020 as the battery costs are then >30% down.
So by then most new rooftop solar installations in Germany will have a battery installed!

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 17, 2014 11:42 am GMT

Germany shows that it is more than enough to cover 50% of all roof-surface to produce 150% or even 200% of all electricity needed.

In Germany 2% of the roofsurface produce 5% of its electriciy, while using on av. ~15% efficient panels.
New panels are 21%. When the new factory is ready next year, Sunpower will deliver 23% efficient panels. Further improvements going on towards ~40% as lab results show.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 17, 2014 2:12 pm GMT


Yes, but look at the rates of changes. The cost of solar fell dramatically over the past few years, and can reasonably be expected to continue to fall.

That said, I think nuclear should be used for base load. The plant designs really have gotten safer over the years. People were right to fear nuclear in the early days.

I watched a video lecture on nuclear engineering by one of the original designers. He was saying that in the early days they didn’t have formal methods like fault trees. Now they have very complete fault trees and data to put into the statistical computations.

A mix of nuclear baseload, solar for peak demand for power for AC, wind when possible, and natural gas for peak when solar isn’t available. Anything but coal…


Bill Woods's picture
Bill Woods on Jun 17, 2014 5:31 pm GMT

“You can build wind and solar in the middle of deserts, but you have to build nuclear by a prime water resource.”

The largest nuclear plant in the US is in the middle of a desert, in Arizona. It used urban wastewater for cooling.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Jun 17, 2014 6:44 pm GMT

1. By “yield”, you seem to mean capacity factor, which for non-storage solar is fixed by weather. Which means that no, CF will not increase yearly: it’s dependent on plant location and nothing else.

2. Long-term costs of PV modules have been declining, not so for balance-of-system costs. We are rapidly approaching a situation where BOS costs (physical structure, installation, electrical connections, financing) will be the price drivers for PV, and those are not subject to Moore’s Law. Therefore we should not expect installed PV prices to continue downward at the same rate in the future as they have in the past. The fact is that even if we could make the PV modules for free, the BOS cost of PV would still result in levelized prices higher than wind, nuclear, or fossil. It’s the energy density problem again: solar is too diffuse, and requires large (read: expensive) physical structrues to capture it.

3. Wholesale price disruptions caused by renewables are real, but they don’t just affect nuclear, they also affect renewables themselves. When it’s windy, every wind turbine operator will find himself selling into an oversupplied electricity market where the prices are close to zero or even below. It’s hard to see how a wind turbine owner can justify new investment in new turbines facing market conditions like that — and the same is true for solar. Dispatchable sources, like nuclear, have greater flexibility to ramp up or down in response to price signals. And it’s just plain not true that nuclear plants are incapable of deep down-regulation; NPPs aboard ships do that routinely. Grid NPPs have, until now, not needed that capability and so have not been designed with that in mind. But they certainly could be.


Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Jun 17, 2014 6:56 pm GMT
Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Jun 17, 2014 7:19 pm GMT
Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 18, 2014 2:34 pm GMT

Is this some kind of Sick Weird Ass Joke?

Eight  90 percent capacity factor Nuclear Plants have more foot print than a 40 pct. CF Wind Farm???? What is the area occupied by a wind farm? What is the are occupied by a modern nuclear plant?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 18, 2014 4:55 am GMT

The most important difference between nuclear and solar PV is nuclear can reach 80% average grid penetration with no energy storage and low curtailment (e.g. France), but solar PV can only reach 20% grid penetration before these are needed.

So if your goal is to put a little green-washing on your predominantly coal-powered generation fleet, they both work equally well.  But if you want to zero-out your coal usage and coal-burning fleet, nuclear is the proven path.

See Lion Hirth “Optimal Share of Variable Renewables”


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 18, 2014 6:29 am GMT

I don’t believe that Germany’s rooftops are sufficient to back up your claim because 10 billion people will each need about 50,000 kWh every year for all direct and indirect use. This includes power for extra use, such as excess CO2 sequestration, and it also assumes more efficiency. Large desert expanses are obviously required for this endevor.

However, it is good to continue development of the machine automation required to make more efficient panels and LiFePO4 or better battery storage because we want ALL sources of clean energy to be fully optimized.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 18, 2014 8:32 am GMT

Your simulation study is produced by a then Vattenfall employe (Lion Hirth).
Vattenfall has big interest in power plants (nuclear, fossil), little in wind, none in solar.
The study conclusions are in line with these interests.

The German Energiewende scientists (Universities, Agora, Fraunhofer) concluded that:
– even no storage is needed until ~30% wind+solar (pumped storage makes losses in Germany).
– until ~70% wind+solar the extra costs to integrate wind+solar production (system costs) will be <€10/MWh.

Those German conclusions are in line with the results of:
– US studies, such as by NREL; and
– international studies such as this one by the International Energy Agency (IEA) involving scientists of 12 countries.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 19, 2014 10:38 am GMT

If German rooftops can produce two times more electriity than Germany needs, why do you then think that cannot occur in France, Italy, Mexico, USA, Canada, Japan, etc.?

Especially since:
– by far most other countries have far better insolation than Germany;
– PV-panels efficiency will increase further next decades (as they did in the past 4 decaces).
Creating cheap panels with efficiency >32% in ~2040, so doubling the electricity per m² produced.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 19, 2014 8:35 pm GMT

I am impressed, and yes,  wind is definitely much better in terms of CF than onshore, yes this is all true. However, Bas was challenging the footprintof 8 nuclear plants versus a windfarm, and I dare say that  8 Nuclear Plants built in one year still out perform any MW per MW offshore wind farm by anymetric I can think of, including cost, area occupied, longevity, maintenance and reliability, and lack of need for fossil backing up.

Bill Woods's picture
Bill Woods on Jun 19, 2014 8:42 pm GMT

“… remember that the deal for Vogtle was cinched with a very generous loan guarantee under the Obama administration.”

Not really.  The government offered a loan guarantee in 2010, but the utilities didn’t accept because it would have cost them more than it was worth.  After four years of off-and-on negotiation, they’ve finally come to an agreement, but the plant is already about half-built.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 20, 2014 5:22 am GMT

France will reduce its reliance on nuclear energy…”

It is really easy to make this sort of proclaimation, at least until a specific plan has been laid out with a price tag (economic and environmental).  

Will France follow Germany’s lead and ramp up environmentally disasterous biomass burning?  Will France be able to find some other nation with lots of available hydro capacity to smooth out the flow of variable renewables?  Will they spend tens of billions on new pumped-hydro facilities?

Or will they simply operate their existing reactor fleet at lower capacity factor to follow the fluxuations of variable renewables (this save almost no cost compared to running them baseload, so effectively one unit of nuclear energy would be discarded for every unit of renewable energy which was produced … a laughable implementation of “reduced reliance on nuclear”)?

Nuclear and solar work great together in warm places that use a lot of air conditioning, but France does not.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 20, 2014 8:23 am GMT

Yes, I want solar on every rooftop but that doesn’t power “everything” as figured by dividing the total consumption of a well developed country by the number of people living within, and then extropolating to 10 billion (and even including more efficiency improvements), globally. Again, I came up with about 2% of all the land (preferably in the deserts) for the power to charge a lot of pumped hydro, the efficiency losses to such storage and to power “everything else”.

That solar should be unsubsidized (but the development for machine automation of solar PV and batteries should still recieve collective funding, as should advanced nuclear). Asking for anything less than the equivalent of 2% solar (on ALL the land) is asking for global poverty and, to be blunt, is rather selfish. Why should all the people in the still developing countries continue to do without? And why should my kids have to reduce their standards?

Don’t be fooled, as NO amount of efficiency can cheat the laws of physics! The U.N. wants what is called “sustainable energy for all” equivalent to not much more than burning dung! Perhaps that is still a step up from the present for some un developed countries, but it is definitely not a very enlightning goal, especially if that means “for all”.


Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 20, 2014 3:49 pm GMT

Installing a special law sounds rather firm!

France doesn’t need to find other nations as it has more hydro than Germany, and even Germany hardly needs the hydro of other countries.

German scientists concluded no (pumped) storage needed until ~<40% renewable. That conclusion is confirmed by the big losses of existing pumped storage facilities in Germany.

France will close part of their nuclear fleet. Starting with the confirmed closure of the first two reactors next year (Fessenheim).

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 20, 2014 5:18 pm GMT

“…development for machine automation of solar PV and batteries …”

That brings improvements in cost price, but
far more can be reached by putting money in fundamental research as that should results in affordable PV-panels with ~3times the efficiency of the best panels now: So ~60% efficiency. Similar for batteries.

Our insight in the structure of atoms & molecules and their connections, as well as our computer models of those, are still in its infancy. So big progress can be made with more advanced cheap materials.
Perovskite is just a start.

Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Jun 21, 2014 3:37 am GMT


Thank you for pointing out that molten salt storage (or any large-scale storage system) could be used just as easily with nuclear–and probably MORE easily, because of the compactness of a nuclear plant as opposed to sprawling solar and wind generation faciities.  

(On another thread, someone observed that nuclear plants could be built underground.  Try *that* with a solar or wind plant!)

If the dreams of renewable advocates regarding energy storage were to come to pass, they would be just as significant for nuclear as for renewables.

The one renewable source that requires no storage (beyond that of reservoirs, which are inherent in the very design) is hydro, and that is a big reason it surpasses in magnitude all other renewable sources combined in most regions where it is practicable.  (Sorry, biomass/biogass lovers; I have an deep distrust of any technology that burns carbon; its claims for “renewability” are questionable at best.) Sadly, the environmental impacts of scaling hydro up much beyond the present level are unthinkable.

Which brings up the two broadest issues underlying much of the discussion here:  scale, and reliability.  On both counts, fossil fuels and nuclear lead the entire renewable pack by an order of magnitude.  If we want to curtail fossil fuel electricy generation at the scale needed to arrest AGW, we must move ahead on nuclear as fast as possible, and even “old” nuclear would do the job far better than renewables.

I would really like advocates for renewables to address the issues of scale and reliability squarely based on the real situation we face *on the ground today*, rather than projecting scenarios than are unlikely to be realized within the next half-century.  We’re running out of time!  Are we really to forego the best hope for CO2 emission reductions on account of a shrill minority’s ill-informed dread of radiation?  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 21, 2014 5:01 pm GMT

Biomass is simply the worst possible way to power a modern society; as you mention, air pollution is one issue which can be addressed somewhat, but more importantly it has absurdly high land use (in addition to the inevitable soil nutrient depletion).  According to David Mackay’s excellent book, when biomass is burned to make electricity, the average annual energy yield per unit land area is only 0.2W/m^2.  This means that each gigaWatt of average power (and the US uses about 500 of these) requires 5,000 square km of land (1922 square miles).  Biomass power (for electricity or liquid fuel) destroys ecosystems and drives up the cost of food.  The Earth has three large, inexhaustible energy sources: solar, wind, and nuclear – all of the others are tiny and we are better off ignoring them.

Regarding wind and solar, the big issue is how do deal with the variability.  Yes interconnection with transmission helps, but the core solution in the real world is to balance with a larger amount of flexible generation (which means hydro or fossil fuel).   French hydro is already fully committed, covering the demand-side variability.  Hence, my suggestion that the cheapest solution for France might be to wastefully “curtail” one unit of nuclear energy for each unit of renewable energy which is generated (actually closing nuclear plants would likely require them to produce or import more fossil fuel energy for balancing).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 6:29 pm GMT

An invasion of invisable green aliens occupied the brains of political figures.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 6:42 pm GMT

Factory produced advanced high temp closed cycle nuclear backed by molten salt (and nuclear made liquid fuels) is the best way to power 10 billion people.

Nevertheless, research for solar and nanomaterials at the quantum level is good. Mass production of the already figured out NASA style Ga As (for very cheap) would be appropiate for those who wish to exclude themselves from other clean sources as long as the chemical wastes (from such large scale solar production) are fully accounted for and nuetralized/isolated.

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Jun 22, 2014 9:02 pm GMT

Until you have incorporated the cost of disposing of the waste from nuclear power plants and the cost of keeping this waste safe for 100,000 years, I’m afraid I won’t believe you that Nuclear is less expensive than any other power source.  If I understand correctly, the waste from the Manhaten project hasen’t even been safely disposed of.  If you were talking about 4th generation power stations which are said to be able to burn up the waste from the first three generations, I would go along with it.  Whatever the cost, it would be worth it to vastly reduce this dangerous stockpile of radioactive material.  Empires come and go and how long do you expect the present USA empire to continue.  Do you think as she collapses economically, next year, next decade or even next century that she will be able to continue to manage surface nuclear waste.  That won’t be her priority.  If indeed climate change  causes anything like the caos that is predicted, this will only hasten the demise of our present civilization.  Even without climate change, empires come and go and economic collapses happen.  Nuclear is not an option.

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Jun 22, 2014 9:07 pm GMT

OK.  So you build a nuclear power plant undergound and then have an accident.  With all the radioactivity confined in an under ground man constructed cave, this is a totally no go area.  Noone can get down there because of the radioactivity confined in the hole.  A melt down is pretty well inevitable then  and you have a mini volcano spewing radioactivity on to the surface and into the ground water.  Even without such a scenario, imagine the fun of trying to decommisssion such a plant after its 50 or 100 year life time.  Not  pretty prospect.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 23, 2014 2:08 am GMT

The fundemental concept behind nuclear waste storage, worldwide, is that once material is emplaced and sealed in suitable deep geological storage, the material can be safely left unguarded/unprotected for all eternity.  Such facilities would not need more monitoring than any other man-made or naturally occuring garbage dump (yes, there are plenty of naturally occuring toxic accumulations).  This is not a claim that the waste will never get out; the Yucca mountain studies predicted the waste would eventually escape (50,000 years from now), but by then the radioactivity would have decreased enough and would be dilute enough to not be hazardous.

Studies show that the WIPP (the US Department of Energy’s existing nuclear waste repository in New Mexico) will have excellent retention of the waste we put there (once it is sealed), much better than Yucca mountain.

You seem to have an implicity assumption that nuclear power is somehow inherently more dangerous than other power sources.  This belief is not supported by experience.  This article compares fatalities counts from various energy sources, and finds that nuclear is the safest of all!  Perhaps you’ve heard the stastic that over 10,000 Americans die each year from air pollution from fossil fuel power plants; it is simply wrong to believe that we would be safer replacing nuclear power with more fossil fuel use.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 23, 2014 8:11 pm GMT


1) Meltdown is not a possibility for gen 4 MSR’s.

2) If an accident were to happen with a MSR reactor, the fuel will leak into a catch area where it hardens into a solid salt (no spewing).

3)Even Fukushima required Steam and Hydrogen from steam exposed to exposed fuel rods, for it to “spew” stuff. Without the water cooling design, and/or inadequacy of coolling water to submerge the fuel rods, there would never have bee an explosion or spewing of any radioactivity.

4) Don’t listen to the fearmongers who are dead set against Nuclear Power, regardless of however safe it is.  Bias is bias, and education is the antidote for it.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 23, 2014 3:34 am GMT


The current French President is saying this, Kind of like Obama not funding nuclear much. But what do you suppose would happen when a new president or different party is elected?

What do you suppose a Republican might say about funding Generation 4 nuclear power versus wind and solar? The point is that you should wait until successive elections have happened before being sure what France will actually do, as opposed to what a president who favours the Greenie Viewpoint does.

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Jun 23, 2014 2:24 am GMT

Unfortunately, I don’t share your confidence in the infalibility of engineers.  In fact, my dad, who is an electrical engineer has a ring made of a piece of the metal from the Tacoma bridge.  These rings are given to graduating engineers to remind them of the danger of Hubris.  Back to the nuclear storage in deep dry rock.  When the “ash” from converntional nuclear power stations is removed, it has only used up a small part of the energy available in eventually breaking down into a stable isotopes.  When you put it into storage, it continues to give out energy which in quantity is greater than the energy it gave out in the power station.  Of course it is giving it out much more slowly over a much longer time.  As long as there is water around it initially until it “cools down” somewhat and later, air, to take away this heat, your problems are reduced.  Put it in dry rock which is a very good insullator, and the temperature builds up.  You pretty well have to have cooling of some sort to keep the containers and eventually the surrounding rocks from melting.  The cooling system is the problem.  You can never go down into the cavern after a certain length of time as the whole area will be radioactive and radioactivity breaks down materials so your cooling system is bound to eventually fail.  Besides, if the state no longer deems it a priority or even doen’t have the infrastructure available to keep operating the cooling system you have the same problem.  You are likely to develop a mini volcano of no great magnitude but giving out radioactive materials onto the surface.  The only solution I can see is to develop these 4th generation power stations.  They were researched in the early days of nuclear power but were scrapped because they don’t produce and bomb making plutonium.  The Indians, fortunately, are working on them again because they can also use Thoium as a fuel and they have a lot of Thorium.   Of added concern is that if our high tech society breaks down, the existing power stations without their constant human intervention will have a melt down.  Once again a very nasty source of radioactive material.  At some point we have to shut down and clean up each of these potential disasters. As far as I know we haven’t yet managed to successfully and safely decomission a nuclear power station.   How long do you really think the nuclear powers of the world are going to continue to have an economy which can manage these power stations.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 23, 2014 6:41 am GMT

No, a nuclear waste repository does not require cooling once it has been sealed.  Each repository design has a certain heat limit that it can tolerate without active cooling, e.g. a small amount of waste that releases a lot of heat, or a larger amount of cooler waste.  Running the cooling systems during loading  and perhaps a few decades afterward, prior to sealing, therefore increases the capacity (container leakage is normally not a problem for many, many decades).

If the containers don’t last many decades without leakage, then the solution is simply not to fill the repository as full, and seal it sooner.  Alternatively, the waste can be held in interim storage in dry casks for many decades, then moved into new containers for final disposal.

I don’t believe that a repository that has leaky canisters will be too radioactive for maintanence.  Most of the radio-isotopes that could leak out are just weak beta emitters, so bunny suits and clean air provide good worker protection.

In any case, this nuclear business does not require infallability.  As we saw at Fukushima, accidents happen, clean-up is viable and affordable, and there have still been zero deaths from Fukushima radiation.  In contrast, since the Fukushima accident, over 30,000 Americans have died from fossil fuel pollution.

There have been many nuclear power plants which have been decommissioned, see the list here.

If society breaks down, most humans will die of starvation, a little radiation is not going to make much difference.  We are way past the population limit where living off the land works.  The romantic notion that having enough guns and solar panels will let the well prepared survive the zombi apocalypse is just a fantasy. 

It is easy to get distracted by the details, so I will repeat the core safety issue: nuclear is safer than fossil fuel, and reducing the fossil fuel 30%, 50%, or  even 90% by adding renewables does not change that fact.

Bill Woods's picture
Bill Woods on Jun 23, 2014 4:41 pm GMT

It shows as ‘113’ in my browser. There are several other comments with over 100 likes as well.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 23, 2014 5:40 pm GMT

Just another reason to re-develop the molten salt reactor and deploy globally…

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 23, 2014 5:51 pm GMT

These video’s may change your mind… 

Advanced meltdown proof, high temp (and non high pressure) non water cooled liquid fuels molten salt nuclear… is the only option…

Short of gigadeath.

Currently, we use fossil fuels to make fertalizer to feed 7 billion people (and we’re not even doing a good job at that!). Only such advanced high temp nuclear will be able to do this on a 24/7 basis AND provide the energy necessary to sequester the half trillion tons of excess CO2 from the biosphere.

Because of FF’s, we have acually lowered the pH of the oceans… The precurser to gigadeath.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 23, 2014 6:01 pm GMT

Again, I say that invisible green aliens have occupied the minds of people in power. The Frence has provided a rather non fossil fueled energy source whereas most the world continues to pave the path of destruction. Total planetary destruction. Advanced meltdown proof high temp nuclear is the only option because it provides the power necessary to reverse ocean acidification, the power necessary to make ammonia based fertalizer needed to feed BILLIONS of people (let alone power them) and because it is probably the only design that will ever be remotely acceptable to the public at large.


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