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On Nuclear Power Plant Cost

A collection of information on Nuclear Power Plant Cost.

  • Costs for nuclear power are quite competitive on a per kw-hr or kw installed basis. See The Economics of Nuclear Power by the World Nuclear Association for instance. But nuclear plants are capital intensive so that is indeed an issue that cannot be left solely to private enterprise.
  • For a nice summary commentary, see CANDU in Ontario: the unknown soldier? by Steve Aplin of Canadian Energy Issues. Very well said.
  • For a more indepth treatment, see Can CANDU estimates be trusted? by Archie Robertson, November 2004. Learn what went wrong with Ontario Hydro's nuclear program. Hint: it wasn't the CANDU machine.
  • It has been shown that CANDU nuclear power plants can be built on time and on schedule (China, Korea, ...). But, painfully, we know fromn the link above that huge cost overruns can also occur. It is important to note that it is not primarily a technical issue; it is social and political. Let's look at the case of Darlington NGS next.
  • The story behind the Darlington NGS cost overruns - a nice summary talk by none other than Elgin Horton (former Vice President of Nuclear Operations and Chief Nuclear Officer Ontario Hydro) at http://www.thinkingpower.ca/events_nuclear.cfm - look under session 2 .  It jives completely with my recollections, as follows. 
  • Personal Commentary on Darlington and Ontario Hydro - a bit of a rant, drafted in 2003 but still rings true:
    • The huge debt to Ontario taxpayers due to Darlington cost overruns arose because:
      • OH was not permitted by law to charge the customer for the cost of construction until power was delivered from that plant.
      • Darlington was delayed by the then new environmental assessment act, by intervenors and by a recession that changed load growth from the traditional 7% per year to near 0% per year.
      • Interest rates went up to about 20%.
      • It was like building a nuclear plant on your Visa card! 
    • In the late 70's and early 80's when all this was happening, our plant operating records were on top of the world, mostly because we did not experience nearly as many steam generator failures are other plants world wide, thanks to good design and, more important, good maintenance.  The debt was one of the major reasons for the OH admin (suffering under the political winds), decreed a maintenance cutback and staff reductions.  By the mid 80's, OH stopped hiring summer students (and they used to hire a lot of them).  So, naturally, students turned elsewhere for career opportunities. All the other companies combined were small potatoes compared to OH.  We, as the nuclear enterprise, have not recovered from that chain of events.
    • It appears to me that there was a political decision made on high to privatize OH, and that was that.  The Bay Street boys had their finger in the pie, I suspect.  To sell the idea to the public, OH had to look bad.  So, capitalize on the maintenance issues by bringing in the US cowboys for a quick fix (at the expense of the long term).  Things were so bad they HAD to shut down 7 plants at once.  Ya, right.  Would it not have been more sane to fix them one at a time, thereby not causing so much coal fired pollution that there were 1000 extra deaths a year attributable to respiratory disease in the youth and elderly (I believe that was the number I heard from the medical people).  And we would have built a crack team of maintainers who could move on to the next station. 
    • We had problems within the industry to be sure.  But I fail to see how the path we took addressed those problems.  I suspect that we could have done much better by fessing up to the public how all this happened and just got on with the job of slowly paying down the debt and systematically getting our stations in order. 
    • As you can probably tell, I fail to see how privatization (where the stakeholders are the shareholders) will be of more benefit in the long run to the public than the public run system (where the stakeholders are the public).  Sure there are inefficiencies with the public run system.  So?  No system is perfect.  We, as a society, need to deal with it.  But if we are well and truly on the road to privatization, then let's do it well.  In the end, it probably doesn't matter what system we put in place as much as how well we implement the system that we have put in place.  Tell me how a private system is to work with a rate cap and with no way for the home owner to get credit for using electricity during off peak times?  The marketplace only works if I have choice of whether I want to buy an article or not and if I have a choice of when I buy it and from whom.  Let's face it, there are certain things in society that belong in the private sector and certain things that belong to the public sector.  'Common good' items like education, health care, roads, electricity, water, fresh air, governance, justice, police, military, social welfare (especially child welfare and the elderly), etc, are obviously issues of the common good.  I predict that the current 'private' system will morph into a public one because we cannot change (or fail to address) the fundamental needs of society.
    • Maybe now the public will have to stomach to deal with the technical and social realities of power generation, with what needs to be done.  We need good people to do good design work, good repair work and good system planning work.  We need enough surplus capacity, we need a good mix of power sources, some base load, some flex load.  We need to support alternative energy sources as well as nuclear, coal, oil and gas, if only to give it a reasonable shot and, if it fails,  have solid evidence to move on to better schemes.  It would be soooo nice if the nay sayers put their energies toward developing better alternatives rather than just saying to stop what we are doing now to produce power. 
    • The public needs to be encouraged to weigh all the issues in making decisions.  We, as nuclear professionals, should not be telling anyone what the answer is; rather, we should be telling people what the facts are and make sure that they are aware of all the dimensions to the issues.  And we need to encourage them to weigh all this to decide for themselves. 
    • What we really need to do is train up more people to do better design, commission, operation and maintenance.  We need to stop jerking the industry around with more reorganizations, layoffs, etc.  We need a stable, positive environment if we are to attract  bright minds to the industry and not demoralize the ones we already have.
    • There, I feel better now.