Climate Group Lecture keynote address from Professor Joseph B Lassiter

Prof. Lassiter delivered a 40 minute lecture in Scotland to an event sponsored by the 2020ClimateGroup. The video is in two parts

Keynote part 1

Keynote part 2

We found the lecture to be a useful and sometimes fascinating global perspective of what is happening in the energy markets. An “insider’s perspective” in some parts. What you think?

Response to Readers: Combating Climate Change with Nuclear Power and Fracking

Prof. Joe Lassiter responds to the commentary firefight prompted by his Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article. His comments are self-explanatory – I’m highlighting here a few that resonate especially with me [emphasis is mine].

With more than 7,500 views and 180-plus tweets, I want to thank everyone for taking the time to read the original HBS Working Knowledge piece, The Case for Combating Climate Change with Nuclear Power and Fracking, and, in particular, for sharing your thoughts with one another. I don’t expect the article has changed minds, but I do hope it encourages people to open their minds to consider new possibilities.

My own concerns about climate change have led me to put “new” nuclear back on my table of alternatives that must be actively explored as well as to clarify my own attitudes toward fracking and its role towards any global solution. We must have a global solution—a set of new choices that change plans not only in the West but also in China and India—or we will have no solution at all.


Things that were once seen as relatively safe are now understood as likely to be quite dangerous, such as coal burning’s contribution to global warming driven by worldwide cumulative CO2 emissions. Perhaps, the opposite is also true. Are things that were once seen as quite dangerous now potentially relatively safe as result of new understandings and innovations? 

While rich countries can afford to do whatever they wish to do, policymakers in poorer countries consistently make the trade-off in favor of the certain benefits of electricity to their citizens today over the uncertain costs of global warming to their citizens in the future. To change that trade-off significantly, I believe we need to get new dispatchable, zero-carbon technologies on the table within the next 10 years that can beat coal on price in India and China in order to change Indian and Chinese national energy policies.

In my opinion, the newly approved Gen III+ nuclear reactors (e.g., AP-1000 variants or even the still-to-be-approved, but largely derivative Small Modular Reactors) are not likely to produce power cheaply enough to change the currently forecast build out of fossil fuel power systems in India and China. While China will make significant commitments to nuclear power internally and aggressively export nuclear power plant components, the bulk of its power generation will remain with coal, serving markets—domestic and foreign—where demand for low-cost will in all likelihood overwhelm the drive for low-carbon emissions. Without establishing the availability of much cheaper (coal-competitive) zero-carbon alternatives within the next 10 years, I just don’t think “the world” can do enough, fast enough to keep cumulative CO2 emissions below the levels that—again in my estimate—threaten us all with “unknowable” risks.

My concern with nuclear—even “new” nuclear—is the issue of catastrophic core failures, à la Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Historically, those core failures have been “Hindenburg disaster” events with immediate loss of life and property as well as the additional uncertainty of lingering contamination. While gripping, the actual loss of life from these events has been similar in magnitude to the loss of life of relatively more common disasters—BP Deep Horizon blowout, Exxon Valdez grounding, BP Texas City Refinery explosion, Gyama Mine landslide—which take place relatively often within the world’s existing energy systems. As part of a Bayesian analysis, Jack Devanney of Martingale estimates that on average we will have one such nuclear core casualty every 3,000 reactor years. For the current fleet, that’s about one every 10 years. If the world were to go all-out nuclear for electricity, we would eventually be talking about one core damage event every calendar year, unless we can substantially reduce the failure rate with new designs.

In spite of all of nuclear’s issues, private capital is relatively abundant. There is even a privately financed, venture-backed fusion reactor program today, Tri-Alpha Energy, of Rancho Santa Margarita, California. There is a whole crop of privately financed “new” Gen IV nuclear power technologies—like those at Martingale or Transatomic or TerraPower as well as others—that have the potential to be significantly cheaper than the current Gen III+ plants or the proposed Small Modular Reactors, even though much work needs to be done before we know that these Gen IV designs will actually be cheap enough to beat coal in India and China and safe enough for regulators to permit for deployment. It is the inability to get access to sites for stress testing of prototype designs, as well as high upfront cost and uncertain timeliness of the regulatory process, that are the primary barriers to raising private capital today.


There is a clear opportunity to hold ARPA-E style design challenges around the world focused on nuclear power that call for entrepreneurs to submit designs that meet the cost, safety, construction, and operational scaling required to beat coal in India and China in less than 10 years. It will take new ideas to break coal’s momentum and to open up the minds of policymakers. This is a time when small teams can often uncover brand new or even forgotten paths to new solutions while large teams get trapped into non-solutions by incrementalism and convention. But to convert these new ideas into real alternatives, the world’s governments need to go even farther. They must provide the nuclear regulatory redesign and physical facilities for prototype evaluation that will let private capital take on the tasks of technical innovation, experimentation, and rigorous stress testing, even as the eventual permitting authority remains with public regulators. Innovation and regulation must proceed hand-in-hand, but regulators must allow entrepreneurs to pursue those innovations with a relentless urgency that matches the severity of the “unknowable” threat which the world faces from global warming.

Finally, if you have the time, you might look at the online Forbes comments section as well as the HBS Working Knowledge comments section at the bottom of the article. The exchange between Forbes commenters ‘daviddelosangeles’ and Jeff Walther is well worth reading, as is the discussion among Walter, Mohammed Athari, and Paxus Calta. Also, Robert Hargraves dropped by and mentioned his book, THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, which I found to be a useful compendium of energy information of all kinds.

(…snip…)  I think we all need to keep our minds open to change, while urgently pushing for achievable, effective, and truly global solutions to the challenges of global warming.

Joris van Dorp explains why he can sometimes appear hyperbolic

Source: Energy Collective September 15, 2014

Hi Mark,

Yes, I can appear hyperbolic, but I’ve joined the energy debate for most of my adult life. The first few years I was very nuanced, but this did not help. Then, when the subsidy racket started on large scale, I become a little more pointed. And since Fukushima, which allowed the anti-nuclear propagandists to kill nuclear power in many countries, I have decided that clarity is far more important than nuance. I call BS whenever I see it, and I do not attempt to soften my message. We need to put our foot down, or nothing will change. Anti-nuclearists need to feel hounded. They need to understand that they will be held to account sooner or later. That is why I call fraud when I see fraud, even though many might find the use of words like ‘fraud’ to be uncivilised or too heavyhanded. I don’t believe it is. It’s a matter of life and death now.

30% wind/solar would be the limit above which the costs for curtailment/storage start rising exponentially. Even before reaching 30%, profile costs start soaring already. Details can be found in the presentation and underlying report that I linked above.

Solar and wind power should only be installed along with a budget for funding their entire integration costs, and this total cost must be born entirely by the owner of the installations. This is the opposite of what is happening today. Today solar and wind power are financed almost completely by the public (and disproporitonately the poor, who pay the most relative to their income!), while the benefits are funneled into the pockets of the well-healed owners. This is a recipe for failure on multiple levels: environmental, social and financial. It’s a disgrace. It needs to be stopped immediately. See Spain as an example of how stopping this anti-social subsidy racket can be done quick and hard.

Environmental and economic constraints demand the building of cheap, clean energy. Solar and wind power have no role to play because they cannot deliver what is demanded, not now and not in the future. They only serve to complicate the task at hand, increase the cost of energy and magnify social inequality. Cui bono? Follow the money.

I recommend that you follow Joris van Dorp or his RSS feed. I can guarantee that you will learn something every day about the real-world of power generation.

We need an Energy Miracle — Here is How to Create that Miracle

Fact #1: Fossil Fuels continue to dominate global energy


Fact #2: Globally we are out of time – now need to increase decarbonization rate by factor of five. From PWC: Low Carbon Economy Index 2014 | 2 degrees of separation: ambition and reality

These two charts should make it clear that what we have been doing to eliminate fossil fuels is not working. This week we have seen more of the same non-functional, heat-but-no-light activity signified by a Feel-Good Climate March. Many of the marchers carried Anti-Nuclear signage. No doubt these are nice, sincere people. These are not serious people – they are not serious about climate change.

Harvard's Joseph Lassiter is serious about climate change. He is Professor of Management Practice in Environmental Management at Harvard Business School. Among his specialities is low carbon energy policies. He has just published the perfect response to the climate march feel-gooders. In this short essay Dr. Lassiter makes the essential points which I'll summarize as:

  1. Fossil fuel continues to dominate while both IEA and EIA forecast continuing fossil growth.
  2. We need an energy miracle.
  3. “That miracle comes in the form of “New Nuclear” power plants.”
  4. “The barriers to rapid progress in New Nuclear are not technical, not even economic. The barriers are in the outdated nuclear regulations that scare off private investors and in the nuclear industry-regulatory culture that accepts timelines measured in decades as normal. The world needs a New Nuclear miracle today.”
  5. “The US, EU and Japan have the technology infrastructure and the dynamic, startup companies to bring New Nuclear to the table quickly.”

Quoting Lassiter directly:

Entrepreneurs in the US, EU and Japan have the ideas. China and India and every other developing economy have the clear and compelling need. But to convert these new ideas into real alternatives, the world’s governments need to act. They must redesign their nuclear regulatory practices and provide physical facilities for prototype evaluation that will let private capital take on the tasks of technical innovation, experimentation, and rigorous stress testing, even as the eventual permitting authority remains with public regulators. Innovation and regulation must proceed hand-in-hand, but regulators must allow entrepreneurs to pursue their innovations with a relentless urgency that matches the severity of the unknowable threats that the world faces from global warming and ocean acidification.

Please read the entire essay, then send the essay to your elected representative, telling her that you expect to see legislation to reform nuclear regulation and also government support for the rapid development of New Nuclear. Thanks heaps to John Morgan @JohnDPMorgan for referring me to the Lassiter essay.

The Economist on past and future emissions cuts


Chart 1 – click to embiggen

The above graphic is from The deepest cuts, a contribution fromThe Economist to grappling with the “big picture” on effective carbon avoidance strategies.There are some obvious problems with the numbers in Chart 1 – particularly the Cumulative Emissions avoided by Hydropower and Nuclear. There are also some very big issues with the Chart 2 where authors attempt to project the carbon avoidance situation in 2020. I  addressed some of these issues in my comments to the article:

I hope this is just the beginning of an ongoing Economist project to refine and update an understanding of what is working, what is not working – all in the context of the essential measure of cost/benefit, specifically cost-per-ton-CO2-avoided.

I need to highlight a few errors in your data presentation. In your Chart 1 you report Cumulative Emissions Avoided for both Hydropower and Nuclear that understate the actual avoidance by roughly thirty times. Nuclear and hydropower avoidance should be about 64 and 90 GtCO2-eq respectively vs. your 2.2 and 2.8 GtCO2-eq. I derived these values from two sources. First, the IAEA report you referenced Climate Change And Nuclear Power 2013 states on page 14

Over the past 50 years, the use of nuclear power has resulted in the avoidance of significant amounts of GHG emissions around the world. Globally, the amount of avoided emissions is comparable to that from hydropower.

From inspection of IAEA FIG. 5 we can see that cumulative historical Hydropower avoidance is very roughly 25 GtCO2-eq greater than the nuclear avoidance, but otherwise similar. But what is the cumulative avoidance? in “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power” Pushker and Hansen, 2013 calculated that the cumulative global CO2 emissions emissions avoided by nuclear power is 64 GtCO2-eq. Here’s their Figure 3, page 12 for both historical and projected emissions avoided:

Click to embiggen

The authors calculated the 64 GtCO2-eq avoidance based on a different IAEA source document: Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2011 Edition; International Atomic Energy Agency, 2011.

Is 64 GtCO2-eq a big number? It is a Very Big Number, as Pushker and Hansen 2013 contrast to 35 years of USA coal emissions:

For instance, 64 GtCO2-eq amounts to the cumulative CO2 emissions from coal burning over approximately the past 35 yr in USA

Chart 2: Click to embiggen

Regarding your Chart 2, forecasting “the policies likely to have the biggest impact in 2020″ is a courageous undertaking. To make useful projections requires a deep knowledge of the energy industry, the electric power industry, economic forecasting and the political trends of the significant emitting countries. That is a Very Big Ask, so I decided to have a look for related work by the firm retained by The Economist: namely Climate Action Tracker. The principles of this consulting firm are listed as Dr. Bill Hare, Dr. Niklas Höhne, Dr. Johannes Gütschow and Dr. Michiel Schaeffer. The first three gentlemen are affiliated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research (PIK). That affiliation immediately boosted my estimate of the Climate Action Tracker qualifications because I have been studying the work of other PIK researchers who have been publishing very important and original work on the difficult subject of integrating variable renewable generation sources, especially at potentially high future penetration levels. This work requires a deep understanding of electric power systems. In particular I will recommend these three PIK papers:

  1. Hirth, Lion, The Optimal Share of Variable Renewables. How the Variability of Wind and Solar Power Affects Their Welfare-Optimal Deployment (November 8, 2013). FEEM Working Paper No. 90.2013. Available at SSRN: or
  2. Ueckerdt, Falko and Hirth, Lion and Luderer, Gunnar and Edenhofer, Ottmar, System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables? (January 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: or
  3. Hirth, Lion and Ueckerdt, Falko and Edenhofer, Ottmar, Why Wind is Not Coal: On the Economics of Electricity (April 24, 2014). FEEM Working Paper No. 39.2014. Available at SSRN: or

What I found in an afternoon of Internet research on Climate Action Tracker gives me concern about the Chart 2 conclusions. You have probably noticed in Chart 2 that in the six short years to 2020 nuclear power has become so insignificant it doesn’t even make the top-eleven list. That is puzzling, as nuclear power is currently the largest source of non-hydro emission-free electricity.

I confess that all of my searching for anything related to nuclear power trends in publications by Climate Action Tracker principles is alone update:  Climate Action Tracker Update, 30 November 2012 from which I have extracted the only two, widely separated paragraphs wherein nuclear is even mentioned:

…Society also would lose the ability to choose whether it wants technologies like carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy, because those, along with bio-energy, would likely have to be deployed on a larger scale.

…More pressure on future policy requirements. For example, full global participation would be required after 2020, and society may have little freedom to choose technologies, such as the freedom to reject large-scale nuclear energy, CCS, or bio-energy.

The only way I can read these comments is that the authors political view is that nuclear power should be rejected. This supports my conclusion that the members of Climate Action Tracker are possibly experts in climate science, but perhaps not so expert in the electric power industry and the economics of energy. The economics is fundamental to policies that can be implemented in the real world.

Renewables are making no progress against coal

No doubt you’ve heard that Friends of the Earth recently announced their primary objection to nuclear power is now because it is too slow to build and too costly.

I would like to introduce FOE to the data embodied in Roger Pielke Jr’s graphic. I’ve modified Roger’s chart to illustrate the only energy policy that has succeeded to rapidly displace fossil fuels at utility scale. My crude green slope indicator highlights the period when France, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, United States, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and others built their nuclear power fleets. The absence of further progress since 1995 shows the stark reality of how little has been achieved by the billions dollars of taxpayer wealth that has been spent on renewable subsidies since Kyoto. The following chart contrasts the speed and scale of the nuclear build with the  slow build of the whole suite of “renewables” (many thanks to  Geoff Russell & The Breakthrough for one of my favorite charts).

Roger’s short Breakthrough essay is the source of the original chart:

The data shows that for several decades the world has seen a halt in progress towards less carbon-intensive energy consumption, at about 13 percent of the total global supply. This stagnation provides further evidence that the policies that have been employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective. The world was moving faster towards decarbonizing its energy mix long before climate policy became fashionable. Why this was so and what the future might hold will be the subject of future posts in this continuing discussion.

If you are keen to learn what makes for effective decarbonization policies, then you are likely to also enjoy Roger’s The Climate Fix. For an Executive Summary of the concepts see A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy.

Prospects for U.S. Nuclear Power After Fukushima

Click to embiggen

The chairman of one of the largest U.S. nuclear companies recently said that his company would not break ground on a new nuclear plant in the United States until the price of natural gas was more than double today’s level and carbon emissions cost $25 of ton. This seems to pretty well summarize the current prospects for U.S. nuclear power.

This paper by Lucas W. Davis (Haas School of Business UC Berkeley) is an excellent summary of the US situation as of 2011, and a good source of references for your research on nuclear construction costs. Davis is not attempting to predict the future; he is drawing inferences from the historical data. That is a depressing picture — with the 2011 evidence indicating that US nuclear suppliers have not learned even the French lessons.

Many within the nuclear industry claim that the industry is headed more toward the French model. A chairman of a major nuclear power company recently reported that new reactors would be standardized down to “the carpeting and wallpaper”. However, this claim does not appear to be supported by the license applications that have been received to date. Among the 17 applications that have been received by the NRC, there is a mix of both pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors, manufactured by five different reactor manufacturers (Areva, Westinghouse, Mitsubishi, GE-Hitachi, and GE). Thus, it may well be the case that the industry will soon coalesce around a very small number of designs, but this is not immediately obvious based on these initial applications. At a minimum it seems clear that the French approach of supporting a single reactor design is not going to be adopted here.

Will China lead the world out of this pit by creating a mass manufacturing supply chain for a manageable number of standard designs?

Reddit AMA grills the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering


Members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering participated in the Science AMA Series, responding to a large number of largely hostile questions. Lots of variations of “Can I still eat fish from the contaminated Pacific”. As typical with these AMA sessions the signal to noise ratio is low due to the uninformed questions and irrelevant branched threads of discussion by people who are more interested in politics. I “mined” the 1,447 comments for what I thought were fragments worth archiving.

I guess I’ll start things off. What type of reactors should we be building? I know a big deal a few years ago was made about liquid flouride thorium reactors. Is that the way of the future, or are there superior alternatives?

Prof. Per Peterson replies (emphasis mine):

I do not think that we have the basis to determine or select the best coolant or fuel type to use in future reactors. But there are some attributes which we do need to make sure are used in future reactors.

The first is to use passive safety systems, which do not require electrical power or external cooling sources to function to remove decay heat after reactors shut down, as is the case with the AP-1000 and ESBWR designs, and with all of the light water reactor SMRs now being developed in the U.S.

The benefits of passive safety go well beyond the significant reduction in the number of systems and components needed in reactors and the reduced maintenance requirements. Passive safety systems also greatly simplify the physical protection of reactors, because passive equipment does not require routine inspections the way pumps and motors do, and thus can be placed in locations that are difficult to gain access to rapidly.

The second is to further increase the use of modular fabrication and construction methods in nuclear plants, in particular to use steel-plate/concrete composite construction methods that are quite similar to those developed for modern ship construction. The AP-1000 is the most advanced design in the use of this type of modularization, and the ability to use computer aided manufacturing in the fabrication of these modules makes the manufacturing infrastructure much more flexible. In the longer term, one should be able to design a new reactor building, transfer the design to a module factory over the internet, and have the modules show up at a construction site, so the buildings are, in essence, 3-D printed.

The final attribute that will be important for new reactors will be to make them smaller, and to develop a regulatory framework and business models that work for multi-module power plants. While there will likely always be a market for large reactors, creating an ecosystem that includes customers for smaller reactors (inland locations served only by rail, installations needing reliable power even if fuel supplies are interrupted, mature electricity markets that need to add new capacity in small increments).

On thorium, a question:

Hello! What do you think is the most important advantage that thorium has over uranium as a “fuel?”

Prof. Per Peterson’s reply

The thorium fuel cycle has clearly attractive features, if it can be developed successfully. I think that most of the skepticism about thorium emerges from questions about the path to develop the necessary reactor and fuel cycle technology, versus open fuel cycles (uranium from seawater) and closed, fast-spectrum uranium cycles.

The most attractive element of the thorium fuel cycle is the ability to operate sustainably using thermal-spectrum neutrons. This allows the design of reactor core structures that use high-temperature ceramic materials like graphite, which have substantial thermal inertia and cannot melt. Because these ceramic materials also provide significant moderation, it is difficult to use them in fast-spectrum reactors and thus the most plausible fast-spectrum reactor designs need to use metallic structural materials in their cores.

So thorium reactors are compatible with higher intrinsic safety (cores which do not suffer structural damage even if greatly overheated) and that can deliver heat at higher temperature, which enables more efficient and flexible power conversion.

Molten fluoride salts are compatible with these high-temperature structural materials, and given their very high boiling temperatures make excellent, low pressure heat transfer fluids. In the near term, the largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel, which is simpler to work with and to obtain regulatory approvals.

But molten salt technologies also have significant challenges. One of the most important is managing the much larger amounts of tritium that these reactors produce, compared to light water cooled reactors (the quantities are closer to what heavy-water reactors, such as the CANDU, produce, but methods to control and recovery of tritium are much different for molten salts than for heavy water, and key elements remain to be demonstrated).

To repeat a critical point “…largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel…”. This summarizes why Prof. Peterson’s lab is focused upon developing the PB-AHTR design, which will also prove out many materials and technologies required subsequently to implement the more challenging Liquid Fuel molten salt reactor concept (such as LFTR).

Regarding waste: Prof. Peterson was a member of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. I consider him one of the best-informed sources regarding Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) which the anti-nuclear lobby calls Nuclear Waste. It is not “waste” it is an extremely valuable source of carbon-free energy. 

Q: One of the elephants in the room for nuclear power is the waste….

A: …Finland and Sweden have successfully sited and are building deep geologic repositories in granite, and France is very far along in developing its geologic repository in clay. The U.S. nuclear waste program is currently stopped and is in a state of disarray…

There are a wide range of opinions as water reactors (LWRs) is substantially more expensive than making new fuel from uranium, even if the plutonium is free. This is primarily because the plutonium must be handled as an oxide powder to make LWR fuel, and oxide powder is the most hazardous and difficult form to handle plutonium in. All of the Generation IV reactor technologies can use fuel forms that do not involve handling plutonium and minor actinides in the form of powders and that are much easier to fabricate using recycled material (e.g., metal, molten salt, sol-gel particles in either coated particle or vibropacked fuel forms).

In my personal opinion, the most sensible thing to do in the near term is to prioritize U.S. defense wastes for geologic disposal, and to use a combination of consolidated and on-site interim storage for most or all commercial spent fuel. Implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s major recommendations, which include development of consolidated interim storage that would initially be prioritized to store fuel from shut down reactors, would put the U.S. on this path.

By using geologic disposal primarily for defense wastes first, and using primarily dry cask interim storage for commercial spent fuel, this will give a couple of decades for nuclear reactor technology to evolve further, and by then we will be in a better position to determine whether commercial spent fuel is a waste or a resource.

Nuclear innovation: Prof. Peterson replies

There are a number of factors which make innovation difficult in improving nuclear reactor technology, in particular the long operating life of nuclear power plants and their very large capital costs, which dissuade innovation. The trend toward designing larger and larger water-cooled reactors has increased these disincentives.

Given their lower capital cost and shorter construction times, innovation is much easier in small reactors. There will remain a role for large reactors, just as dinosaurs existed for millions of years alongside the new mammal species, but currently some of the most important policy issues for nuclear power involve creating an ecosystem where small reactors find customers. Smaller reactors, produced in larger numbers with most of the fabrication occurring in factories, would also use specialized manufacturing and skilled labor more efficiently. Imagine factories as being similar to airplanes, and the ability to keep more seats filled being really important to having low per-seat prices…

FHR (Fluoride Salt Cooled High Temperature Reactor), Where to take technical risk?

I will answer this question first indirectly, and then more directly.

A key question for innovation in developing new nuclear energy technology is where to take technical risk. SpaceX provides a good example of a highly successful risk management strategy. They focused on developing a highly reliable, relatively small rocket engine, that they tested in the Falcon 1, which uses an ancient rather than innovative fuel combination, kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other hand, they chose to use aluminum-lithium alloy with friction stir welding for their fuel tanks, which is at the cutting edge of current technology. They have then used the approach of ganging together large numbers of these engines to create the Falcon 9, which is now successfully delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Currently the most important barrier to deploying nuclear power is not the cost of the fuel, but instead is the capital cost of the plants, the need to assure that they can run with high reliability (which for current large reactor designs creates strong disincentives to innovate), and the relatively low electricity revenues one receives for producing base load power, particularly today in the U.S.

The primary reason that UCB, MIT, and UW, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are working on solid fuel, salt cooled reactor technology is because we have the ability to fabricate these fuels, and the technical difficulty of using molten salts is significantly lower when they do not have the very high activity levels associated with fluid fuels. The experience gained with component design, operation, and maintenance with clean salts makes it much easier to consider the subsequent use of liquid fuels, while gaining several key advantages from the ability to operate reactors at low pressure and deliver heat at higher temperature.

Q: Can I also ask what you think the safest way to transport the waste is?**

A: Per Peterson: There is a long record of safe transportation of nuclear waste, including spent fuel, world wide. The containers used to transport nuclear wastes are substantially more robust than those used to transport hazardous chemicals and fuels, which is why transportation accidents with chemicals generate significantly more risk.

This said, the transportation of nuclear wastes requires effective regulation, controls, and emergency response capabilities to be in place. The transportation system for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has logged over 12 million miles of safe transport, with none of the accidents involving the transportation trucks causing any release of radioactive materials.

One reason it is important to restore WIPP to service (it had an accident involving the release of radioactive material underground in late February, which had minimal surface consequence because the engineered safety systems to filter exhaust air were activated) is because the WIPP transportation system has developed a large base of practical experience and skilled personnel at the state and local levels who are familiar with how to manage nuclear waste transport. This provides a strong foundation for establishing a broader transportation system for commercial spent fuel and defense high level wastes in the future.

A commenter replied to Per’s hecklers, referring to WIPP:

Actually I work for this program and this is an understatement. Not only have there never been any accidents that caused a release of nuclear material, there have never been any accidents with a truck loaded with waste containers, ever. They’ve happened while empty, but never otherwise.

Per Peterson discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because nuclear produces nearly zero carbon energy in competition with coal and gas which do not pay their carbon externality costs. Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy-farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

CERA: Construction costs for new nuclear plants up over 230% since 2000

UPDATE: I have republished this 2008 post and comments to bring it “up front” with our ongoing discussion of new nuclear construction costs. At the end I’ve incorporated the 2008 comments. 

UPDATE: Per Peterson, Professor and a former chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, was kind enough to comment on yesterday’s post on the CBO study. Dr. Peterson noted that only about 1% of new nuclear plant construction cost is construction materials. So the theme attributing the rapid cost rises to commodity prices has no basis. Contrariwise, wind turbine construction/installation require at least 10x the materials input per kilowatt — so have higher sensitivity to price and availability of steel, concrete, copper, etc. I cannot accurately summarize in fewer words, so I recommend you read his comments carefully.

Dan Yergin’s Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) maintains the Power Capital Costs Index (PCCI), depicted in the graphic at left – as of May 2008 [click on the thumbnail for full size chart]. In brief the PCCI shows that a power plant that cost $1 billion in 2000 would, on average, cost $2.31 billion in May [in constant 2000 dollars].

You can infer that the increase in the cost of new nuclear plant construction has increased by more than that 230%. As you can see in the PCCI chart the non-nuclear costs are up 180%. The PCCI is assembled from data on a basket of 30 power generation facilities in North America. I don’t know what percentage of the capital base is nuclear so I’ll speculate that it’s similar to the current 22% that nuclear contributes to US generation. That implies nuclear construction costs are up about 400% since 2000.

I may be able to get more background from the CERA Capital Cost Analysis Forum – Power. But I discovered that viewing the replay of the June 6 webconference call required IE6, so I’ll need to fire up a windows PC to access it.

On factors driving the PCCI increases since 2000, CERA writes:

…Demand for new power generation facilities remains high worldwide, leading to continued tightness in equipment markets. Cost increases, supply issues and longer delivery times are exacerbated as manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand. The weakening U.S. dollar also increases the costs of global procurement for equipment and materials.

The number of engineers in the workforce is also declining as older workers retire and are not being replaced. The resulting shortages in plant design teams add additional delays to construction schedules. The current increase in construction for nuclear power generation and the dearth of experienced nuclear engineers in North America has been a key driver behind cost escalation.

Recent cancellations of proposed coal plants in the United States due to uncertainty over environmental regulations has provided some slowing in cost increases in the U.S. coal industry. However, international competition for coal boilers, particularly in Southeast Asia, is keeping the equipment order books very active.

Concerns over a looming U.S. recession and subsequent cut backs in residential construction have offered little relaxation to power construction. The residential slump does not free up the skilled workers required in the power industry and there is no overlap of the specialist metals and equipment required.

Upstream Capital Cost Index (UCCI) Courtesy IHS

I wonder if we are looking at market reactions to an impulse in demand. In the short run [say 5 years] the supply of new nuclear plants is inelastic. Demand has increased considerably beyond expectations, so equilibrium is only achieved by higher prices. We are seeing similar supply/demand responses in several energy sectors. The headlines hammer on oil prices. Note that the UCCI is only 10% less than the PCCI.

The UCCI is based upon a portfolio of 28 upstream oil and gas projects, so it represents the overnight cost of investment in both oil & gas field development and transportation. It may include finding costs, but I’m not sure. I do know that the cost per barrel-equivalent of finding + development costs has been increasing about as fast as oil companies have been able to ramp up their investments. The net result so far is no increase in reserve-additions, which are still lagging depletion.

2 thoughts on “CERA: Construction costs for new nuclear plants up over 230% since 2000”

  1. Paul on December 4, 2008 at 1:44 pm said: Edit

“only about 1% of new nuclear plant construction cost is construction materials” – sorry, I don’t think so. More like 30% at least.

  1. Steve Darden on December 4, 2008 at 7:02 pm said: Edit

_More like 30% at least.

Paul, thanks heaps for your comments. Here’s the relevant part of Dr. Peterson’s comment on commodity inputs [he gives the references as well]:

_While it is widely understood that nuclear energy costs have quite low sensitivity to the cost of uranium, it is not widely appreciated that the same applies to construction materials. If one takes the total quantity of steel, concrete, copper, and other materials required to build a light water reactor similar to those operating today 1, and then multiplies these quantities by the respective current commodity prices, the total contribution of commodity inputs is $36 per kilowatt of generation capacity 2, out of total construction prices that are estimated today to range from $3000 to $5000 per kilowatt today. The dominant cost of nuclear construction is instead in the added value that comes from converting these commodities into an operational nuclear power plant. Conversely, wind turbines require approximately a factor of 10 times as much steel and concrete to construct without considering storage capacity 3, and thus have construction costs that are sensitive to commodity costs and to potential future resource scarcity.

So he gave a range of 36/3000 to 36/5000 or 0.7% to 1.2%.

Can you educate us on the construction cost buildup – also on why quotes have gone up so much since 2000?

CBO Study: Nuclear Power’s Role in Generating Electricity

UPDATE: I have republished this 2008 post and comments to bring it “up front” with our ongoing discussion of new nuclear construction costs. At the end I’ve incorporated the 2008 comments.

I’ve been re-reading the CBO study from May 2008. This is probably the most current objective analysis of base load electrical generation options. Given the CBO levelized costing assumptions it appears that electric utilities will choose natural gas over 3rd generation nuclear unless they anticipate more than $45/ton CO2 carbon tax or equivalent:

Adding a carbon dioxide charge of about $45 per metric ton to the levelized cost estimates in the reference scenario would make nuclear power the least expensive source of additional base-load capacity (see the left panel of Figure 3-2). Up to that threshold, at all but the lowest level of charges, conventional natural gas technology would probably be the least costly option. Because coal is more carbon-intense than natural gas, the cost advantage of new capacity based on natural gas technology would grow in relation to coal technology as carbon dioxide charges increased; but the advantage that natural gas technology enjoyed over nuclear technology would shrink and eventually disappear as emission charges reached about $45 per metric ton. Thereafter, the levelized cost advantage of nuclear technology over conventional gas technology would grow. Although carbon dioxide charges would not change the cost of nuclear power plants at all, they would increase the cost of innovative fossil-fuel alternatives; as a result, the cost advantage that nuclear technology held over those technologies would increase with carbon dioxide charges but at a slower rate than that observed with conventional fossil-fuel technologies.

We know that construction costs for all types of generation have been going up rapidly with the increasing costs for steel, concrete etc. Nuclear is the most sensitive to construction costs, simply because nuclear fuel costs are negligible [conversely nuclear is insensitive to future fuel cost rises, but natural gas is extremely sensitive.) Here’s the relative sensitivities to lower or higher construction costs — again levelized 2006 dollars per megawatt hour:

The CBO study of course has to stick with already-built or on-order nuclear technology. But this may lead to drawing the wrong conclusions. Remember how much autos cost when each one was custom built? And the lousy quality?

That’s our experience of nuclear construction — custom design, custom built, custom approvals. But, given certainty of future CO2 charges, I believe that a competitive market will transform nuclear generation into a mass produced, modular product — and that costs will come down dramatically compared to alternatives.

We don’t know what future innovations will emerge, but as of today, the modular pebble-bed reactor [PBMR] technology looks very promising. Key advantages are safety by design (even chimps as operators can’t cause a nuclear accident), no proliferation worries, and perhaps most important – the design is MODULAR. That means industrial-scale mass production is possible, with all the attendant benefits. One of the most important benefits is the slashing of the financial risk of regulatory delays before a new plant is allowed to start up.

For more background on the Modular Pebble-bed design, see MIT’s study “The Future of Nuclear Power” [1], MIT prof. Andrew C. Kadak’s presentation “What Will it Take to Revive Nuclear Energy?” [PDF] [2], and his Pebble-bed presentation [PDF] [2a]. China is placing big bets here, see Wired’s “Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom” [3].

10 thoughts on “CBO Study: Nuclear Power’s Role in Generating Electricity”

  1. Rod Adams on August 26, 2008 at 8:06 pm said: Edit


It is always important to check the assumptions. The CBO study that you pointed to, though completed in 2008, apparently used a fuel price table that stopped with 2005 fuel prices. It thus assumed a base case of natural gas costing about $5.00 per million BTU.

Since the cost of fuel is about 93% of the levelized cost of electricity from a natural gas fired power plant, underestimating the cost of gas would tend to sway the computed decision in the wrong direction compared to less fuel intensive alternatives like nuclear power.

Nuclear can compete without a carbon tax against gas at current market prices – which are about $8.50 per million BTU and have been as high as $13 in the recent past and may get there again with a cold winter.

Luckily for gas buyers, it has been a fairly mild summer.

  1. Steve Darden on August 26, 2008 at 9:10 pm said: Edit

Rod – thanks for the data update. Does the increase in construction costs since the timestamp on the report data offset the underestimated natural gas prices? I.e., gas operating costs up, nuclear plant construction costs up.

I added PBMR to this post – since folks search for this acronym.

  1. Per Peterson on August 27, 2008 at 10:48 am said: Edit

While it is widely understood that nuclear energy costs have quite low sensitivity to the cost of uranium, it is not widely appreciated that the same applies to construction materials. If one takes the total quantity of steel, concrete, copper, and other materials required to build a light water reactor similar to those operating today 1, and then multiplies these quantities by the respective current commodity prices, the total contribution of commodity inputs is $36 per kilowatt of generation capacity 2, out of total construction prices that are estimated today to range from $3000 to $5000 per kilowatt today. The dominant cost of nuclear construction is instead in the added value that comes from converting these commodities into an operational nuclear power plant. Conversely, wind turbines require approximately a factor of 10 times as much steel and concrete to construct without considering storage capacity 3, and thus have construction costs that are sensitive to commodity costs and to potential future resource scarcity.

Right now demand for new reactors is clearly outstripping supply. While this current supply chain inelasticity will ease in 5 to 10 years, inelasticity in supply always results in higher prices. Thus we can expect nuclear construction prices to drop over the coming decade, but the main question is by how much. While it will never get down to the $36/kW cost of the commodity inputs, there is still potential that prices could drop greatly from the current values if modular construction and factory-based computer aided manufacturing are applied more broadly in the construction.


  1. From R.H. Bryan and I.T. Dudley, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TM-4515, June 1974, current pressurized water reactors use 32.7 t of steel, 75 m3 of concrete, 0.69 t of copper, and smaller amounts of other materials per megawatt of capacity
  2. On March 25, 2008, the commodity prices of steel, concrete, and copper (which constitute 90% of the total commodities costs for a nuclear plant) were $601/t, $98/m3, and $7,634/t respectively.
  3. Wind requires 115 MT of steel and 218 m3 of concrete per megawatt, but has higher commodity input per unit of electricity generated due to a lower capacity factor (~25%) compared to nuclear (~90%), S. Pacca and A. Horvath, Environ. Sci. Technol., 36, 3194-3200 (2002).

    1. Rod Adams on August 27, 2008 at 2:26 pm said: Edit

The interesting thing about the numbers that are being bandied about with regard to nuclear construction costs is that they also include rather substantial allowances for risk premiums, interest costs, and inflation uncertainties.

Those costs can represent half of the final delivered price computation.

  1. Steve Darden on August 27, 2008 at 5:10 pm said: Edit

Dr. Peterson,

Thanks for taking the time to set us straight on the material inputs. 1% means nuclear plant costs are highly insensitive to that component. The CBO study bypassed the contributions to cost increases in their sensitivity analysis – simply assuming -50%, +100%.

Today I wrote a related post on the CERA index of power plant construction. Back of the envelope, assuming 22% of CERA’s basket of 30 plants are nuclear, I drew the inference that nuclear plant construction costs have increased around 400% since 2000. Versus the PCCI average of 230% across all modes of generation.

Similar to your comments, CERA attributes the increases to the surge in demand and the “dearth of experienced nuclear engineers in North America.”

CERA is tracking similar (210%) increases in the cost of upstream oil & gas projects – the UCCI having a similar 2005 takeoff. Much more depth on energy demand over-running supply can be found in the really excellent CIEP study “Oil turbulence in the next decade – An Essay on High Oil Prices in a Supply-constrained World”, Jan-Hein Jesse and Coby van der Linde, Clingendael International Energy Programme. They conclude that the next decade or so will see high volatility in oil markets – oscillating between marginal cost and user value.

Please advise if you have any references to recommend on the potential for nuclear costs to drop in an industry transformation to “mass production”, relatively speaking, of modular reactor components. Presumably, such standardized components would be pre-certified, so that on site certification would be reduced to a process more like inspections of other industrial facilities?

  1. Steve Darden on August 27, 2008 at 10:31 pm said: Edit


Well, it’s interesting that the CERA index explicitly doesn’t include risk premiums, or owner’s cost. It probably includes construction period interest. If my estimates of their basket are close it indicates a 2000 to 2008 Q1 cost increase of around 400% for nuclear and about 180% for non-nuclear.

I haven’t found a source to build up that figure from first principles – so I can’t confirm the PCCI index. I sat through the one hour CERA web-conference presentation of June 6 – hoping to learn the details. They do have a nuclear index, but didn’t present it. It is part of the distribution package sent to members.

Cheers, Steve

  1. JimHopf on August 28, 2008 at 4:51 pm said: Edit

I’d just like to add a bit to what Rod said earlier. Not only does the CBO study assume a natural gas price of $5 (or $6?) per MBTU, which is lower than the price even today, but they assume that it will remain at $5/6 even if we use gas for all new power plants (and possibly also replace existing coal plants with gas plants to meet CO2 reduction requirements). In other words, they assume that the price will remain fixed at a (low) value of $5/6, no matter how high the demand for gas gets!

They simply state that for CO2 prices between $6 and $45 per ton, gas will be the cheapest source, thereby implying that it will be chosen for all new generation. They ignore all feedback effects. In the real world, as more and more gas is chosen, the price of gas goes up until the price advantage disappears. In fact, the real truth is that, for baseload power, gas will not be an option, as it will be the most, not the least, expensive in the future (even w/ little or no CO2 price), since future gas costs will be way above $6. For that reason, utility executives are not even really thinking about gas as a future baseload option. There simply is not enough gas to go around to waste it on something like baseload generation. The choice will be between nuclear and coal.

The real question is what CO2 price is required to make nuclear cheaper than coal. This price is about $20 to $25 per ton of CO2.

  1. Steve Darden on August 28, 2008 at 6:51 pm said: Edit


Thanks – I agree with your all your points.

This price is about $20 to $25 per ton of CO2.

Doesn’t that depend on the capital cost? At 2005 CAPEX I thought $25 per ton CO2 would do it. At 4 x 2005 costs?

I’m confident new plant costs will come down. I’m optimistic that in a decade, constant dollars, that costs per MW will be lower than the 2005 CERA index.

But what do utility execs believe are the levelized costs?

  1. JimHopf on August 28, 2008 at 11:20 pm said: Edit


Well, the capital cost of coal plants has also gone up since then, as well as the price of coal itself (which has almost doubled). That said, the price of nuclear has gone up even more, if some of the latest estimates are to be believed. Thus, it could be that it would require ~$30 or more (but only for the first set of plants).

Of course, under any cap-and-trade system with hard (declining) CO2 limits, the CO2 price will rise to whatever it has to be to make nuclear cheaper than coal (given that renewables contribution is limited by intermittentcy, and that both gas as coal w/ CO2 sequestration will be more expensive than nuclear).

  1. Steve Darden on August 29, 2008 at 3:31 pm said: Edit

Thanks Jim – two important concepts in your comments

(1) but only for the first set of plants – because once deployment gets well underway the capital costs will come down. Probably operating costs as well.

(2) the CO2 price will rise to whatever it has to be to make nuclear cheaper than coal – because that is the new equilibrium, as existing coal utilities bid up permits until it becomes cheaper to build replacement nuclear than to keep paying for permits.

Regarding (2) I still prefer a revenue-neutral carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Most importantly because it gives utilities a predictable and stable future cost environment. Secondly, because it prevents government from getting its hands on a new revenue stream, while avoiding a rich growth medium for corruption and complexity.

What’s your view on that choice?

PS – I just finished a post on “Greens make the case for nuclear power”.

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