Economics of Nuclear: How to avoid Nickel and Diming

I have been told that I seem to have a standard method of opening with a seemingly contradictory statement to my general goal of promoting nuclear power and then suverting it either immediately or over the whole course of the article. Well since I am a creature of habit I feel no need to change my methods. As such I will start with a true statement. Renewables are cheaper than nuclear energy and some fossil fuel sources now. But now for the subverting statement. They are not less expensive than nuclear energy.

Now before you roll your eyes and begin to disparage me for being a pedantic nerd, which I will not deny but that’s not the point I’m trying to make, I want you to think about the last time you were strapped for money but needed to replace something you owned. It could have been tires for your car, or a toothbrush, or shoes, or a microwave, it almost literally doesn’t matter. There’s always the temptation to just buy the cheapest version of what you need to replace to “tide you over” until your circumstances improve isn’t there. But if you stop that impulse and think a bit ahead, maybe you realized that there was the possibility that this cheap stop gap might not be enough to hold until things improve. down that slippery slope lies a cycle of unfortunate circumstances being exacerbated by continuous minimum expenditures to “tide you over until things improve”. This is one of many poverty traps, a horrible cycle of minimum spends to keep a head barely afloat.

It makes very little sense in the moment, but the way out of this particular trap is to spend more money than minimally necessary. Specifically for the security that the object or service will last not merely until things improve, but as far beyond as possible without becoming burdensome on yourself. No one needs a $600 toaster, for any reason.

I apologize in advance but we need to do some basic math to illustrate this point. Starting with the nuclear option. I’ve mentioned this place like once a month at least but Bruce Power generating station produces 6.3 GW of power, 48,169,000 MWh of energy a year, and cost $27.6 Billion in 2013 dollars. This works out to about $4400/kW for construction costs.

This is the Brooks 1 Solar Farm just outside of, surprise, Brooks Alberta. It produces 17 MWdc of power (15 MWac) and approximately 24,000 MWh of clean energy per year. Since it was built in 2018 for a cost of $33.7 million, the price is pretty close to modern costs. And that cost works out to about $1982/kWdc of nameplate capacity ($2247/kWac).

This is a shot of Blackspring Ridge Wind Farm. The stats on it’s baseball card would be: Contract value: $600M over 25 years. Home runs: 300 MW. Batting average: ~1.2 TWh/year. Earnings per inning played: $2000/kW. And fun fact it takes up 260 km^2 (48,000 acres).

For those of you with no interest in reading through the linked energy report, here is a map of the entire project in all it’s sprawling glory. Seriously, sprawling. Just look at all those fields that are bisected by maintenance roads and power collector lines.

So according to all those numbers it looks like nuclear has gotten the pants beaten off of it by wind and solar, almost double as expensive per unit of power to build. But here’s where the difference between cheap and inexpensive comes into play. Specifically in the form of Power versus Energy.

Think back to grade 8 science and you should remember that Power is the rate at which Energy is produced or used. And since solar and wind aren’t able to produce power all the time because sometimes it isn’t windy or is dark they don’t make as much energy per amount of time that something like a nuclear plant does. And without energy your lights go out, food spoils in your fridge, and hospital life support systems turn off.

So this means that you need to over build your Power production of renewables in order to be able to produce the necessary amount of Energy to run civilization. And here’s where we get the first hints about how expensive renewables are. Remember that the Bruce Power station produces over 46 Million MWh per year from 6.3 GW, compared to the Blackspring Ridge’s 1.2 Million from 0.3 GW, and the Brookes Solar plant’s 24,000 MWh from 0.017 GW. This means that if we wanted to go 100% of either of those to match the nuclear plant, we would need 12.04 GW of Wind farm or 34.12 GW of solar.

Now remember how much cheaper the wind and solar looked than the nuclear when comparing costs per unit of power? Both of them were less than half the cost of the nuclear plant. But to pay for that much over building… Well lets just pull the band-aid off nice and quick shall we. It’s $67.6 Billion for the solar generation and $24.09 Billion for the wind farms. Divide the yearly MWh of the nuclear plant by the yearly MWh of the solar farm or wind farm, and then multiply that number by the cost of the respective renewable plant if you want to check the numbers.

Now the astute among you are noticing that the amount of money quoted for the wind farm is actually lower than the cost of the nuclear facility. And here’s where the second part of the poverty trap rears its ugly head. Those facilities are only designed to last for 20-25 years. Some wind farms have even been decommissioned in as few as 17 years. In comparison, Bruce Power has been running at essentially full power for between 30-40 years and is likely to continue for another 30 or possibly even 40. So just like buying that cheap microwave to “tide you over,” even if wind power can produce as much energy as a nuclear facility for less money, what about when you have to replace that microwave before things get back on track? Suddenly you’re out another $24 billion, and potentially even out a similar amount Again before the better microwave would have given up on you.

I’m not saying that nuclear can’t be expensive to the point of causing people to blanch when they see the price tag, but it seems more expensive than everything else because it is all in one lump. With wind and solar, people hear these smaller numbers like 30 million or 100 million and they think that that is much more reasonable. What they don’t see is the 100 other sites just like the ones they hear about being built for the same price in order to supply everyone with the energy they require. And finally, all these numbers I tossed out still don’t include the costs of storage required. So I think it’s pretty obvious to say that while nuclear energy might not be the cheapest, it is definitely the least expensive.

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One thought on “Economics of Nuclear: How to avoid Nickel and Diming

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  1. Well said Sean! Wind power, including the Black Spring Ridge farm you featured, produced very little energy during February this year. Those of us who watch AESO electricity production noticed that output from Alberta’s 1445 MW of wind turbine capacity that month was quite often down to single digit MW output – including the digit zero. Brooks solar energy output in February was on order of 1% of capacity. Still, our former provincial government liked to brag about how “cheap” their contracts for additional wind power are.

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