Battle of numbers around the cost of nuclear power

Battle of numbers around the cost of nuclear power
Battle of numbers around the cost of nuclear power

Opponents of the atom often cite its costs to support their claims. The Vaudois socialist Roger Nordmann spoke about it in April on RTS “the most expensive kilowatt hour you can have”. The Swiss Energy Foundation again stated this winter that “nuclear power plants are extremely expensive and unprofitable compared to renewable energies”.

Difficult comparisons

The staggering costs of the latest reactors, of which the company EDF is the prime contractor, seem to prove them right. The construction of the two EPR (European pressurized reactor) at Hinkley, in the United Kingdom, constantly extended, will exceed 20 billion francs each. The Finnish Olkiluoto site, commissioned last year, is among the most expensive buildings in the world, alongside Apple HQ, Asian skyscrapers and other atomic power plants. In France, the cost of a construction program for six EPRs is estimated at 67.4 billion euros.

Read also: In Hinkley, the astronomical cost of two nuclear reactors at the heart of the British government’s strategy

At the same time, if we look at the average price per kilowatt hour coming out of Gösgen and Leibstadt, it has averaged around 5 cents over the last ten years, according to their operators – this figure includes the construction and dismantling of the power stations. as well as waste management. This is less than most other sources of electricity. What to conclude? That the initial investments are high but then we find ourselves there?

Let’s start by pointing out that comparisons are difficult. Because the atom produces in ribbons (the same quantity all the time, except during maintenance periods) where new renewable energies are intermittent – ​​except geothermal energy. We can count on it especially in winter, when photovoltaics are less efficient and demand peaks.

Read also: France wants Switzerland to help finance its new nuclear power plants

Because the lifespan of power plants varies from one type of energy to another and some (like gas plants) are flexible (easy to turn on or off quickly), unlike their nuclear cousins. Because within a category, some plants are more profitable than others. Because the most interesting electricity is not necessarily that which is produced en masse (prices are often negative on Sundays in summer) but that which is needed at a given moment. Finally, the load factors (the energy actually produced in a year divided by what a factory would produce if it always operated at full power) vary completely.

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Demonstration, necessarily technical, with a calculation received by e-mail from a reader, Jean-Marc Chapallaz. To compare the production of a wind turbine with that of a nuclear reactor, according to this EPFL engineer, it is a matter of multiplying its power by 4.5 (since a wind turbine has a load factor of 20% compared to 90 % for a nuclear power plant). To obtain wind production equivalent to that of a 1600 megawatt (MW) nuclear reactor, a wind power of 7200 MW (1600 x 4.5) would therefore be required, or 2400 wind turbines of 3 MW each.

In Switzerland, a wind turbine would cost 3 million francs per MW (this would be, according to him, the price of the Mollendruz propellers). Wind farms with a total production equivalent to that of a 1600 MW nuclear power plant would therefore cost 21 billion francs. This amount would then have to be tripled because a wind turbine has a lifespan of twenty years, three times less than a nuclear reactor. And Jean-Marc Chapallaz concludes that wind power is much more expensive than atoms.

Read also: Nuclear power ready to warm up Franco-Swiss relations

He is wrong, objects Lionel Perret, director of Suisse Eole, who disputes the data cited above: the expected costs of Mollendruz are 90 million francs for 50 MW, or 1.8 million francs per MW. “Unlike wind, which is free, a nuclear power plant has operating and fuel costs,” he says, noting that uranium prices have risen in recent years. “Not to mention the cost of nuclear dismantling, when a wind turbine is dismantled in one day and is paid for by the resale of components or materials (experience at Mont-Crosin),” adds Lionel Perret.

For a relevant comparison, according to him, it is necessary to multiply the power of a wind turbine by 3.33, given that a modern wind turbine in Switzerland would have a load factor of 24% compared to 80% for a nuclear power plant (in reality, the average load factor of the latter in Switzerland since their commissioning would be 85%). To obtain wind production equivalent to that of a 1600 MW nuclear power plant, a wind power of 5328 MW (1600 x 4.5) would therefore be required, or 1269 wind turbines of 4.2 MW each as in Mollendruz.

At 1.8 million francs per wind turbine per MW, a wind farm with production equivalent to that of a nuclear power plant would cost 9.6 billion francs. Given that a wind turbine has a design lifespan of thirty years as for a nuclear reactor, and that it can also be extended, says Lionel Perret, wind energy is approximately half as expensive as a nuclear power plant. modern investment, he concludes.

Read also: Rafael Grossi, director of the IAEA: “Switzerland will continue to operate its nuclear power plants for a long time”

It should be noted in passing that the Confederation’s energy scenarios, which rely on a combination of complementary renewable solutions, do not provide for as many wind turbines as the figures mentioned above.

The case of Spain

Another example, also contested, with an EPFL study published at the beginning of May. Professor Andreas Züttel indicates that with 8 cents per kilowatt hour (taking into account the construction, operation and dismantling of the power plant; see table on page 18), the electricity supplied by a new nuclear power plant would be by far the cheapest of all the energies supplied in ribbon in Switzerland. The study notably compares nuclear production with photovoltaic installations combined with storage capacities, which should allow them to provide electricity at all times, a solution which would be three times more expensive.

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“Eight cents per kilowatt hour would be the bottom of the range, surely a power plant built by the South Koreans, not the French,” slips Cédric Junillon. The boss of the Vaud company WattEd believes that know-how in the nuclear industry has been lost in Europe, after thirty years of scarcity, and that the Asians, who have not stopped building them, are more effective today. They are targeting the export market as they did for solar and now wind power.

Professor at HES-SO Valais Stéphane Genoud does not share Andreas Züttel’s opinion. “In Europe, market forces will naturally oust nuclear power. Intermittent energies will always be more complementary and will end up producing in ribbons, together. It’s inevitable because it’s cheaper,” says the specialist. This drop in prices will make the development of seasonal storage solutions for surplus electricity produced during sunny hours, with batteries, hydraulics or hydrogen, financially interesting, according to him.

Read finally: Kingsmill Bond: “The fall in prices of renewable energies will boost their deployment”

Stéphane Genoud mentions the case of Spain, a country which depends a lot on wind turbines and photovoltaics and which, poorly connected to the European network, is less influenced by prices on the continent. “Spain is the Europe of tomorrow. This country combines renewable energies with gas plants and old nuclear power, while waiting for storage to develop, and thus offers ribbon electricity,” he says. This state would be closer to the zero marginal cost electricity model described by Jeremy Rifkin, an American essayist who anticipates a society, shaken up in its capitalist fundamentals, in which many services (from energy to communication) are free.

In its 2050 energy mix scenarios, the International Energy Agency (IEA) nevertheless foresees an increased use of atoms. Swissnuclear, the sector umbrella, concedes that building a nuclear power plant is expensive, but asserts that these costs are reliably amortized. The production costs of Swiss installations have decreased throughout their fifty years of operation (they date from the 1970s), from more than 6 cents per kilowatt hour at the beginning to 4 cents today, despite investments in their renovations and Security.

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Roger Nordmann suggests that the nuclear kilowatt hour is the most expensive? “That’s not what the scientific studies say,” notes Cédric Junillon. The expert cites, among other things, a report from the Paul Scherrer Institute which indicates (see table on page 14) that solar power is clearly less expensive per kilowatt hour, but that gas, biomass, geothermal power plants or even certain new hydraulic works would cost more.

There is a method for comparing two ribbon energy sources, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE). The IEA introduced another, the value-adjusted levelized cost of energy (Valcoe), which takes into account factors such as losses due to intermittency of renewables. In its “World Energy Outlook 2023” (page 301), the IEA indicates that the Valcoe of nuclear power is higher than for other sources of electricity (apart from gas plants) and that it is in Europe, where the construction of power plants is the most expensive, while nuclear power costs the most.

Holistic approach required

It is nevertheless necessary to compare complete systems, in particular because the costs of adapting the network to the new energy mix or the creation of emergency solutions (such as fossil power plants or the hydraulic reserve) can generate large costs, recalls Cédric Junillon.

Also read our report: Leibstadt, in the lair of the largest Swiss nuclear reactor

Adopt a holistic approach to the system, which takes into account the costs of all production sectors but also flexibility and network needs while achieving carbon neutrality in 2050? This was done in France by the electricity transmission manager RTE in 2021. And it emerges that this is its scenario with the most nuclear energy (combining old and new power plants), while massively developing energies renewable, which would cost the least in France (see table on page 31). “I would welcome a neutral body – to have maximum credibility – carrying out this exercise for Switzerland to put an end to preconceived ideas, on one side or the other. The Federal Office of Energy for example,” indicates Cédric Junillon.

Read also: Where to find metals for the energy transition?

In the meantime, the debate rages about the relevance of building nuclear power plants, but one point seems to be a consensus: existing reactors must be operated for as long as possible because their production is now unbeatable.

“It is the most cost-effective low-carbon solution,” according to the IEA. “Nuclear power is like an old car: we keep it as long as possible before getting rid of it,” adds Stéphane Genoud. “A depreciated power plant is a gold mine given that the biggest cost comes from construction,” concludes Cédric Junillon. He notes that the Germans, by closing their last reactors last year, deprived themselves of infrastructure in perfect condition and worth billions.

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