Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
April 10, 2005

The Nuclear Option


I have been requested to write about France's nuclear energy programme. It's a huge subject, and I have already spent too many hourse researching it, so what I will do now is provide a brief summary and a number of links that I have found for those of you that are interested in finding out more.

For the surrender-monkey-lovers amongst you, you can also go read my third installment on the French campaign for the referendum for or against the EU Consititution: EU Constitution - France Votes (III) What if it's no?

So here we go.

Nuclear energy in France is big:


France is the second largest producer of nuclear energy after the US, with 58 reactors (104 in the USA) on 19 sites.

Map of French nuclear plants (click on the "Nuclear" icon on the right)
More detailed map with the technical parameters of each nuclear plant (1 page pdf))

As this document (Nuclear Power in France - why does it work?) describes, nuclear energy was first developed at a leisurely pace in the 60s and given a massive boost when the oil crisis struck. A massive programme was launched by the public authorities in 1975, which led to the wholesale replacement of fuel and coal-fired power plants by nuclear ones.



This was a fully centralised programme. EDF, the national electricity operator (then a monopoly) borrowed money with the sovereign guarantee of France to pay for it. It was built for the most part by French companies, but interestingly, it used a US technology (pressurised water) under license (developed by Westinghouse) because it was cheaper than the technology (using graphite) which had been developed so far in France. All 58 plants use the same technology, although the more recent reactors are more powerful than the earlier ones. All the companies involved in that effort were eventually consolidated into Areva, which is now the main industrial player in the sector and involved in the whole nuclear chain, from uranium mining to plant construction, and fuel processing and treatment:


EDF is the operator of all plants, but safety is regulated by an independent watchdog, the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (website in French only, as far as I can tell). Environmentalists say (in French, again) that the watchdog cannot be considered to be independent as it is a government department and the State is the owner of EDF and strongly pro-nuclear... I am going into this debate here but provide various links below if you want to investigate further...

Thanks to the fact the all plants are identical, have been bought under a very long term plan (over 25 years) and are operated by a single entity, operating costs are quite low. The final cost of electricity per kWh also benefits from the fact that funds for the programme were borrowed using the very low rates that highly rated sovereign countries can obtain, and amortised over very long periods (initially 30 years, but the life of the older plants has been officially extended to 40 and it is likely that they will be further expansions). 5% interest rate over 40 years vs 8% over 20 years makes a huge difference, and the overall cost of electricity in France is very low. France exports electricity to all its neighbors, including the UK and Germany, and is competitive in all markets.

European Electricity prices in 2002 (click on picture for a bigger version, or on the link for the original)


Please note that, despite pretty much everything that you read in the financial press, EDF has NOT RECEIVED a centime from the French government in the past 25 years. Quite the opposite: it has regularly been "raided" by the government when there were budgetary crises (through special taxes or "dividends"), and it has also been used to fight inflation (by being forced to lower its prices regularly). It is a highly competitive electricity producer, and that's the main reason why there are few competitors in France - it makes no sense to build new plants when you already have a massive supply of very cheap electricity.

I put out the following table in my previous diary on wind power:

Cost of production for various technologies, not taking into account externalities.

(my calculations from various sources which I'll be happy to provide upon demand. I have modified some numbers somewhat to avoid giving out any confidential information when necessary)

The nuclear numbers come from this study made by the French Ministry of Industry (see a summary in English (pdf, 4 pages))


That table shows the importance of the interest rate hypothesis and thus the value in this industry of having a national player able to capture value on the financial markets by borrowing a lot cheaper than private operators.

On the emissions side, with nuclear making 80% of production and hydro another 10%, France's carbon emissions are logically amongst the lowest in the industrialised world:


The other big advantage of nuclear is to avoid dependency on foreign supplies for electricity production. A good fraction of the uranium is imported, but it comes from friendly countries like Canada or Australia, as well as from some African countries with a "friendly" French presence like Niger. France thus produces 50% of its energy needs overall from domestic sources, versus 26% in 1973.

The last big topics are that of plant decommissioning and nuclear waste.

Two big reports on these topics have been published by independent bodies in recent weeks, so there is a lot of information available, unfortunately most of it is in French. The debate is quite lively here, but I have not found many references in the English speaking press. Here are the reports:

Parliament evaluation of nuclear waste management options (March 2005, in French)

Cour des Comptes report on decommissioning and nuclear waste (in French; the Cour des Comptes is the financial watchdog for all public entities, it is fiercely independent).

The summary (15 page pdf, in French) of the document of the Cour des Comptes is as follows:
- risks linked to operations are well identified
- risks linked to waste management are well identified and managed. Decisions on long term storage are pending (they are due in 2006, see next report)
- decommissioning and waste storage are well estimated and amount to about 10% of production costs. However, the absolute numbers are quite high.
- current provisions by the 3 main actors of the sector (EDF, Areva and CEA, the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique, which runs R&D and manages some of the older reactors) amount to 71 billion euros
- full transparency is required in the accounting of these provisions and their plans of use (these should be set in stone and not be subject to short term contingencies). Only Areva fulfills this requirement at this point.

As regards the long term management of nuclear waste, a specific agency, ANDRA was created by a 1991 law, with a 15 year mission to find a long term solution for nuclear waste. 3 axis or research were examined: (i) separation and transmutation (transforming nuclear elements into other, less noxious, elements by chemical processes and isolating the more radioactive ones from the rest) (ii) long term permanent storage of waste in deep geological layers and (iii) temporary storage of certain elements in the expectation that they can be processed at a later stage.
All 3 are expected to be pursued, and the choice of the site for long term geological storage, that of La Bure, in Eastern France, is close to being made.

The report proposes to pursue all 3 and sets a detailed plan over the next 35 years to organise it. It provides detailed estimates of the expected cost of the whole process and proposes to create a specific fund, to be funded by the nuclear industry, to pay for it over the corresponding period.

Other reports (such as this one, Lifetime of Nuclear Power Plants and New Designs of Reactors (in English, for once)) address the question of how and when to replace the existing power plants in the long term. France has now taken the decision to build a demonstration version of the "EPR" (European Pressurised Water Reactor), a new generation of reactor built on the same technology as the existing ones, with incremental improvements. It would be built by Areva and Siemens, and has also been ordered by Finland.

France is happy with nuclear energy and intends to continue using it on a large scale. It has workes so far because it has been run in a highly centralised way, with one operator with the full backing of the State under a very long term plan. Both the operator and the public supervisory body have a strong engineering culture with an emphasis on technical excellence and safety, and they are generally trusted, despite occasional lapses in transparency which are increasingly corrected nowadays.

The full costs of the programme appear to be mostly accounted for, and nuclear plants have provided cheap electricity to France over the past 20 years at no cost to the public purse.

If this appears too good to be true, well, maybe it is! I don't claim full neutrality on this topic, being French, and an alumni of the same engineering school as many of the top people at EDF and Areva, but, as you may be remember, I am a big supporter of wind power and I still see a need for nuclear energy as the "base load". Let's be clear: it's going to be nuclear or coal, and I will let Plan9 (from dKos) argue how much worse coal is!

That's it for now.

To keep you busy, here are a few more links on the topic that I have found interesting, coming from both nuclear proponents and opponents (you know, fair and balanced and all that):

Nuclear energy today (OECD, 2005)

World Nuclear Association's "Nuclear Energy made simple

LockerGnome encyclopedia on Nuclear Power

Office for Nuclear Affairs of the French Embassy in the US

EDF's page in English on nuclear energy

Areva's description of its industrial activities in the "nuclear cycle"

2004 Report on Nuclear Safety (114p, pdf, in French)

Breakdown of electricity production and CO2 emissions (click on the respective links for separate pop up windows.)

'Learn more about Plutonium' page (6 page pdf)

Sortir du nucléaire (getting away from nuclear energy) the French umbrella group of most anti-nuclear associations (in French only)

Greenpeace's "End the nuclear threat"

Eole vs Pluton, a Greenpeace campaign comparing the costs of investing in nuclear energy or wind energy in the future.

Posted by Jérôme à Paris on April 10, 2005 at 22:09 UTC | Permalink


One item I didn´t get:

Does the french calculation of energy costs inlcude the costs of "buring" the waste materials, i.e. the radioactive garbage of old reactors or does it not?

In Germany it does, as I understand, include at least part of it by mandatory payments to a fund to take care of this.
30 years after we build those preasurised water reactors can´t we come up with a better technology that takes into account minimizing the contaminated material and looking at minimal deconstructing costs?

Posted by: b | Apr 10 2005 22:28 utc | 1

It does include these costs. The exisitng provisions are now going to be allocated with more precision, if I understand correctly.

10% of production cost for waste and decommissioning seems pretty good. The problem is that it's 10% of a big amount for a long time and such a big pile of money attracts a lot of unhealthy interest, starting with the cash-strapped government...

Posted by: Jérôme | Apr 10 2005 23:13 utc | 2

Well, your numbers show that private industry will never invest in new power plants unless they're forced to. I guess public utilities were invented for a reason.

Posted by: Tim H. | Apr 11 2005 0:57 utc | 3

Dear Jerome,

Could you please let us know something about the safety record, in English?

When I lived in France, I asked some people about this, and they said that whistleblowers in France were not treated particularly well.

Thanks, and I hope that all continues well with your family.

Posted by: hopping madbunny | Apr 11 2005 2:09 utc | 4

Jerome, most interesting. On your emissions chart, what would the corresponding US figure be?

Posted by: liz | Apr 11 2005 2:38 utc | 5

I guess the costs don't include the possible cleaning and reparations in case of meltdown and fallout - since these would range in the hundreds of billions if not in trillions.
Nuclear, imho, is like biofuel. It could be moderately used, for a limited time, as a secondary source, but you simply can't power Earth with it. First, you'd exhaust the uranium reserves in probably one century if you tried to bring everyone to a European or Japanese standard (let's not even speak of globalising the American way of life), then you'd need something like 2.000 plants or more, which means building 50 of them each year, and would greatly increase the risks.
Nuclear seems fine as long as everything works correctly. If it fails, then even coal may look out to be better. Not to mention the huge waste to be dealt with - and apart from rocketing it into the Sun or maybe to the Moon, we'll have to live with it for the rest of the life expectancy of the species.

Beside, it's the perfect example of a state-subsidised industry. Maybe not currently directly by the state, but in the past, and surely the tens of billions put in past research didn't come from venture capitalists but directly from State - notably military. If 1/4 of what has been spent on this had been on wind and solar, we would have more and cleaner energy now. But of course, for that to happen, we'd need real political leaders, not the bunch of buffoons who have plagued mankind since far too long, and seems to be all that we're left with since close to a century.

Posted by: Clueless Joe | Apr 11 2005 7:29 utc | 6

CJ - the French studies claim to take into account research costs. I don't know how real that claim is, but at least the topic is acknowledged.

As with the other topics:

- nuclear deaths are insignificant today. Even "the worst accident ever", ie. Chernobyl killed fewer people than are killed yearly by the coal industry in mining accidents, not even mentioning the pollution and other externalities

- nuclear waste - all the waste on earth would fit a couple of largeish buildings. It's manageable.

Nuclear scares the bejesus out of us because it can affect us in ways that we cannot comprehend (at the cellular level).

Frankly, fearing nuclear power is a bit like fearing terrorism, it comes from making a smallish problem (in real, absolute terms) into the biggest deal ever, which it is not.

Posted by: Jérôme | Apr 11 2005 7:55 utc | 7


Nuclear scares the bejesus out of us because it can affect us in ways that we cannot comprehend (at the cellular level).
Is'nt the radiation problem a little zero sum? Worries about nuclear(power) source weighed against O-zone depleation via coal fired plants (&other sources). Would imagine the O-zone problem more difficult to contain/control than finite nuclear waste product. Can't believe I just said that.

Posted by: anna missed | Apr 11 2005 10:35 utc | 8

Jérôme may be right
about the insubstantiality of our fears regarding nuclear power, but a look at
this visit to the Chernobyl area
is still highly illuminating and scarey. (Start at the link "beginning" and follow through
to the end -about 27 Web pages - for many striking photos and interesting commentary).
Nuclear incidents ARE different from other
disasters related to power generation: the
consequences can make vast areas uninhabitable for millenia. Admittedly, better technology could obviate
such risks (I'm thinking of suggestions like Carlo Rubbia's for fail-safe-by-design reactors), but the safety problems at present seem to me to be
several orders of magnitude more serious than those posed by terrorism. Indeed, I would be interest in Jérôme's comments on the
feasability of the nuclear industry in the absence of financial guarantees (insurance against liability) from national governments. I
think it was the latter
problem which killed the U.S. nuclear power industry after the 3 Mille Island accident.
Standard disclaimer: I have no expertise in this

Posted by: Hannah K. O'Luthon | Apr 11 2005 10:57 utc | 9

Jerome, very good, thanks.

Unique pictures of Chernobyl:

Elena from Kiev: I travel a lot and one of my favorite destinations leads North from Kiev, towards so called Chernobyl "dead zone", which is 130kms from my home. Why my favorite? Because one can take long rides there on empty roads. The people there all left and nature is blooming. There are beautiful woods and lakes.


At the bottom of the screen, the Chapter 1, 2....22 links will lead you straight to the pictures.

Posted by: | Apr 11 2005 13:01 utc | 10

I've seen this before and read that it was a big hoax. It's hard to tell.

What I have read is that it is difficult to tell what the health consequences of Chernobyl are (apart from obvious - and easily preventable - ones like thyroid problems) because the country, like toe Soviet Union has so many other causes of scary diseases (metal and atmospheric pollution, alcohol, hospital hygiene) that you cannot tell one cause form the other - and my experiences would tell me that this is about right. You have no idea how apocalyptic the Soviet Union can be until you've actually seen it.

Posted by: Jérôme | Apr 11 2005 13:14 utc | 11

If they wanted to spend the money, couldn't they just cast the waste in a giant block of lead and let it sit somewhere?

Posted by: Tim H. | Apr 11 2005 15:30 utc | 12

If we followed the usual health regulations in the West, 1/3 of Bielorussia would be off-limits. After independance, one of the first measures of Ukrainian govt was to decide the new radiation limit would be multiplied by 10, becuase otherwise a lot of the newly independant country would be sealed, without habitants, without food production. You could fish glowing salmon in Swedish lakes in the late 1980s - well, if you didn't give a damn about the ban of course.
It must also be noted that the only thing that prevented a complete meltdown and a far bigger destruction was that it was USSR, a massively authoritarian regime who could mobilise tens of thousands of foot soldiers that could be sent at once to deal with the problem. Do you think France or Japan (or probably even US) could do the same? It's also worth noting that of all the guys sent there, most are already dead and the othes are dying from cancer.
So, yes, true, the day of the accident, less people died than during the usual Chinese, Russian or Ukrainian coalimining accident. Still, estimates of deaths caused by Chernobyl-induced cancers (already dead or to die in the next 10 years) range in the million. Sure, as Jérôme said, Russia is in such a shitty post-collapse position that many other ills plague the population; but as an Exile reader, he should also know that Russia basically lost 10 mio people thanks to the overall collapse (if compared to pre-1989 demographics and life expectancy).
Frankly, in my opinion, wide use of nuclear plants is one of the biggest lunacies I've ever seen - it's like people riding the Niagar falls in a barrel. Maybe, if 1/3 of France is turned into a radioactive wasteland, 15 mio refugees wander around Europe, and 500.000 people die the first year, then EDF may be able to make a good cost calculation. Until then, I'd just like to know why its CEO isn't living near La Hague - I mean, it scares everyone except a few locals, but if it's really harmless it must be the deal of the century, because land must be dirt-cheap there around.

And, of course, we're just speaking of yet *another* fossil fuel that will be exhausted in a century if it becomes the main and essential source of energy for mankind.

Posted by: Clueless Joe | Apr 11 2005 15:46 utc | 13

What are your sources on the death toll at Chernobyl, Clueless Joe?
I don't have a firm stand on this, but the nuclear issue does happen to be one where I'm almost as skeptical of the left as of the right. You can't trust governments (ever), but I've also heard anti-nuke people say utterly ridiculous things with a completely straight face. I don't mean to say your comments are in that category---I just wonder what the sources are for the estimated death tolls you cite.

Posted by: Donald Johnson | Apr 11 2005 19:47 utc | 14

I'm a bit too tired (long day) to grapple with Jerome's (as always) lucid presentation in great detail. So pls forgive if this is a bit less focussed than I would like -- I'm raising questions more than declaiming -- and Jerome may be able to skewer some of these questions with Miyamoto Musashi-like finesse, a mere wave of his chopsticks.

The "let's face it folks, we either go coal or nuclear" is a familiar tactic from the nuke industry. The option of diversifying, i.e. not getting all our power from one monolithic technology -- eggs in one basket! -- in a large scale centralised distribution model, is ruled out implicitly by presenting this (ahem) Manichaean choice -- Big Nuke, or Big Coal. The option of reducing our energy usage significantly -- transforming the demand side -- also goes unmentioned. Simply shortening the darned transmission lines by a factor of 2 -- i.e. diversifying and localising power production -- would be an enormous savings, as the lines are embarrassingly lossy.

Secondly I think the French nuclear industry works fairly well (so far) because it is a public utility and heavily regulated. If we imagine the privatised version which the US would almost certainly be insane enough to try, with no accountability, no public oversight, nuke corporations slipping their CEOs onto the NRC board, no public information available "for security reasons" -- well, think "privatisation of British rail" except that the Potters Bar incidents would be a bit more costly. It may be that nuclear power is only (semi-)practical if it is a socialised endeavour, since its social risks are so high. What happens if the US, through its international tools, managed to crush the hated French "socialism" and pull an Argentina on France, destroying the economy and forcibly privatising all the assets? How "safe" would all those nuke plants be under fragmented private ownership, run strictly for profit?

I don't see it as being self-propagating either -- OK, so EROEI is 2 to 1, but do we really believe we could go on building more generations of nuke plants using only the energy from the present generation of nuke plants? (For one thing, eventually you run out of uranium). What I mean is that they do not really replace the megagallons of fossil fuel that were used in construction, even if they put out a theoretically equivalent wattage after 15 years or so in operation. I don't believe in rechargeable NIMH-powered bulk carriers making the round trip to Oz to bring home the uranium ore to feed Generation N of the plants, if you see the problem... :-)

Then comes the "Marburg Problem", or "nuke plants left unattended" scenario. Sure, there are automatic systems, failsafes upon failsafes, deadman switches galore, and the darned things are supposed to shut down safely if everyone gets MegaMarburg III or Avian Swine Virus IV (fondly known as "flying pig flu") and dies writhing on the control room floor. But failsafes have been known to fail. An unattended nuke plant, hot and running, is a serious event waiting to happen. Whereas an unattended, abandoned wind farm eventually stops spinning and then quietly rusts away, hurting no one.

I've noted before some of the issues with cooling water requirements, river levels, water temperatures etc. Given that we can expect the global warming curve to continue for the forseeable future based on what we've been doing over the last few decades, counting on a steady, faiap endless supply of cool fresh water for reactor cooling seems a mite optimistic.

It is easy enough to say that all the waste from our nuke plants would fit in a couple of large-ish buildings (kind of like "all the people on earth could stand on Zanzibar, so there's no population issue"). [how large, btw? apartment buildings? or the hangars at Boeing Field?] But to get to that largeish building (which I don't wish to live near, moi -- do you? who will want to? or will they be located in the midst of slums, or aboriginal lands?), it has to be transported -- a risky prospect. And once there, what do we do with it from now until eternity? I mean, we are pumping water 24x7 through hot ponds right now because we ran out of room to store the rods on dry racks and it's too dangerous to transport 'em and there's nowhere to transport 'em to. And the Yucca Mountain thing is toast, unless BushCo decides to do it based on falsified safety studies (why the heck not, they invaded Iraq based on falsified intelligence). Where is that apartment building located, and how is it cooled? Reliably? For the next how many hundreds of years? Anyway, the waste disposal issue is a perfect illustration of a cost which steadfastly refuses to be externalised. (Maybe we need to add "feral costs" to Daly and Cobb's delightful coinage "feral facts.")

But I think the strongest argument against the technology may, ironically, not be a technical and public-health argument -- nor even an energy efficiency argument -- but a "social health" argument. And for this I will have to dig out my dog-eared copy of John Adams' Risk, in which I think he discusses this matter at some length. If I remember his argument accurately, in précis he says that the culture of nuclear power is a "security state culture," i.e. that the plants are so potentially dangerous (as a terrorist target for example, or a wartime target), the fuel is so dangerous, the waste is so dangerous, the potential for fissile material to go astray is so dangerous, that a culture of centralised Statist control and "elevated security" is required to make such a technology "safe". And this culture of secrecy, paranoia, the prohibition of public oversight and access, is a culture that lends itself to abuse and excess -- an inherently anti-democratic culture.

Nuke technology is the ideal excuse for a totalitarian policing style and intrusive surveillance, in other words. I will see if I can dig up his original argument -- I remember it as being very interesting when I read it a few years ago. NB Dr Adams is not exactly your red/green ecolefty -- he's been published by the Cato Institute now and then :-)

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 12 2005 6:07 utc | 15


Is there any talk in France about the new designs for nuclear plants being touted in China? The word is that these plants are meltdown-free, modular, and relatively cheap to build. Also, I remember reading something about ceramic storage containers as a solution to the waste problem.

Having spent a bit of time in China and seen what real coal emissions can do, I have to admit that a safe nuclear option looks really good, in the absence of any significant breakthroughs on the solar front...

Which leads to another question: are the barriers to large-scale solar solutions technical, or have they been shelved because the big boys can't make enough money on it... something like effective medications that are not produced because the drug companies can't make a profit selling them?

Thanks for the great post.

Posted by: d52boy | Apr 12 2005 8:25 utc | 16

are the barriers to large-scale solar solutions technical?

If you refer to solar panels, yes. They cost more energy to produce then they later yield.

If you refer to thermal solar power, no. But there are economical barriers. From a power perspective they have a positive net yield, but not in the ballpark of fossile carbonbased-fuels.

Another factor is of course the one DeAnander has raised, the power over power. If nuclear power is linked to strong state rule, solar and wind are the least dependable (depending on climate) on a strong state rule. I was in contact with a internetcafe-owner in a dictatorial country in Africa who wanted to buy solar panels, because when traffic was running high on oppositional websites abroad suddenly there was a power failure for a couple of minutes. A brutal illustration of power.

Posted by: A swedish kind of death | Apr 12 2005 12:04 utc | 17

from pr watch's spin of the day - Warm Feelings for Dirty Energy

Posted by: b real | Apr 12 2005 16:25 utc | 18

The situation of nuclear in the UK is not good, particularly because of failures in respect of nuclear waste management.

As Jérôme notes above, his calculations do not take externalities into account. I have seen other calculations by Dr Dave Elliott of the Open University (in a presentation at the Science Museum in London - I'll dig them out if I can find them) that showed nuclear to be the most expensive option when externalities (such as waste disposal, state subsidy) are included.

Externalising costs is not an option these days - especially at a time when the price of oil now includes the myriad costs - social, financial - of the current war in Iraq.

I also saw Stephen Tindale, head of UK Greenpeace, in conversation with the energy correspondent of The Economist earlier in 2005. As far as I recall, Tindale was pretty sure nuclear was not an option now in the UK because of the prohibitive cost of getting liability insurance.

Posted by: Dismal Science | Apr 12 2005 17:37 utc | 19

The liability insurance issue may be shrugged off -- "oh, what a foolishly litigious society we live in!" -- and I have some sympathy for that point of view, having seen the insane lengths to which ordinary activities are constrained and liberty curtailed in the US in the name of lawsuit-proofing.

However -- and it is a big However too -- the inability to get liability insurance is relevant. When we assess risk there are two factors to take into account. One is the statistical chance of the risk event actually taking place. The other is the severity or cost of its outcome.

In other words, we have to multiply or otherwise factor the two things together to get a "comfort zone" which an underwriter, or a neighbour, or we as voters, would want to inhabit.

If the odds against my dropping the glass of water I am carrying across the kitchen are, say, 10,000 to one (I can carry a glass of water across the kitchen 10,000 times before I drop one), that seems a very slight risk. But one of the reasons it seems very slight is that the consequences are very slight. If I were carrying a flask of plutonium dust across the kitchen, 10,000 to one odds against dropping it suddenly seem not so great. 100,000 to one would still make me pretty nervous about carrying the damn thing. A million to one wouldn't feel a whole lot better. Basically, I don't want to carry the damn plutonium across my kitchen at any odds, because the magnitude of the consequences of dropping it is too extreme.

When risk is imposed on people, as when a nuke plant is sited in a lower-income neighbourhood or next to your family farm or on the river that you swim and fish in [somehow they are never located in the middle of wealthy trophy-home suburbs, ya know?] the risk factor (as seen by insurance agencies or by locals) is some amalgam of the worst-case outcome (its cost in horror, in death, in money, in long-term devastation) and the odds against that outcome occurring. Nuke plants can have safety standards that are "very high" and yet still be, and feel, "risky" because of the extraordinary, extreme permanent potential costs of a failure.

I think the reluctance of underwriters to accept the potential magnitude of the risk is relevant. There is no way they can get a premium high enough to hedge against a negative outcome that is potentially damn-near-infinite in monetary terms (suppose Chernobyl had been San Onofre), without gutting the whole financial model for building nuke plants (you could never afford to build one if you had to pay realistic premiums to hedge against a major event).

Those who are familiar with the technology and work with it on a regular basis become complacent in a sense -- they construct odds like 100,000 to one and a million to one, and they feel frustrated with the lay person who stubbornly refuses to feel "safe" with the technology despite these "good odds." But from the layperson's point of view, having a nuke plant (or anything else particularly lethal and complicated) situated near one's home and family is rather like having an armed man walk into the living room and point a loaded and cocked gun at your child's head. No matter how the man assures you that he has very steady hands, he has no intention of hurting your child, and the odds are better than a million to one against his having a nervous twitch or other involuntary event that would cause him to actually pull the trigger -- you as the parent of that child are not going to be much mollified. The magnitude of the risk is such that the odds are irrelevant, and you are quite likely to be outraged that this risk has been imposed on you in the first place. If you are a NIMBY you will demand that he take his gun and go play someplace else, point it at someone else's kid. If you are more socially minded you may want to know why he is allowed to go around pointing this gun at anyone, period.

All technology has risks, yada yada yada. A wind farm tower might collapse and kill someone. A big solar array might, I suppose, somehow lend itself to assisted suicide if an interloper were rash and foolhardy enough. A para stirling dish could blind or burn someone. A poorly designed woodstove can kill you with monoxide buildup. Your biogas digester might prove explosive if you were really incompetent. A major chemical spill -- Bhopal for example -- can be nearly as lethal as a nuke plant disaster. And it can be quiet and sinister too: some chemical compounds are nearly as insidious as radiation, some cause genetic damage, some take years to kill you. But in general, chemical oopses are a bit easier to "clean up" afterwards.

Seems to me that if we want "safety" we can either choose to play with safer toys, or we can place our trust in a rigid technocratic management structure that is vulnerable to (a) political corruption, (b) social collapse, (c) slow degradation of quality and standards due to complacency over time, (d) unexpected consequences and unforeseen failure modes (bad O rings that take down space shuttles for example). My preferred choice would be to play with safer toys. If this meant having electricity for only 12 hours out of 24, I could live with that.

We make the assumption that we could not possibly live with electricity in smaller doses or for fewer hours out of the day, and therefore we must put our faith in big government, big technocracy, megaprojects, and lethal technologies. Me, I think this is Easter Island thinking :-)

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 12 2005 18:24 utc | 20

I am not so pesimistic on a possible safe reactor technology and I would like to see more research money into it. There are some ideas around (fluidized bed reactor) that should be tested. If by design a nuclear reaction is impossible even if everything fails and the danger of release of radioactive particles is minimized I probably would take the risk.

I think there has not been enough thinking into such projects because they will not lead to a financial optimal (maximum profit) design but only to a optimal (more expensiv+less risk) balanced design. Todays reactor concepts are not suitable for that.

I am all for putting some tax euros into further thought of new concepts.

Posted by: b | Apr 12 2005 20:08 utc | 21

The French calculations do take into account

- decommissioning
- waste treatment and storage

As I mentioned in the post, there are massive provisions that have been made for these (71 billion euros as of today) and that are thus accounted in the electricity price today.

Externailites mean (i) impacts on the water in rivers used for cooling, (ii) whatever emissions still take place and (iii) the risk of an accident.

Go read the Greenpeace "Eole or Pluton" study because they contest the price of French nuclear using the assumptions of the French engineers. It's not altogether convincing to me, but I've had bad experiences with Greenpeace and do not trust them much anymore. But go read it and make up your mind.

The arguments by DeA that these require a strong centralised government, and are not really failsafe, are much stronger and I have no easy reply to these. Obviously the French model has not been too bad at managing the first item, and the engineers will certainly explain that the second point is also mostly taken care of, but it gets a lot harder...

It is still interesting to note that France (and Germany) have sold the new genration of nuclear reactors (the EPR) to Finland under commercial terms (and to a private consortium).

Posted by: Jérôme | Apr 12 2005 20:26 utc | 22

one major question I would first want to know is have the conditions of uranium mining gotten any better? when the big companies were pulling it out the ground in the southwestern united states, they destroyed many indian families and communities, contaminating the land, water sources & everything else in the area. the reports i've read about shiprock, churchrock and the like are sickening. the majority of the uranium deposits remaining in the us are on indian lands, making it less likely that the majority populace hears much about how devastating the impact on the land & the people around it. big biz comes in, rapes & poisons the land, covers up its own liabilities for deaths & radiation sickness, makes a bundle of $$$$ through theft, and then lobbies for the govt to declare those lands (and its people) national sacrifice areas. just a superfluous population, easily cast aside in the chase of profits. so before one even gets to the discussion of whether nuclear plants could be constructed in a manner that reduces catastrophe, we need to recognize that picking uranium out of a hole in the ground has catastrophic in itself. looking over this 1996 report on uranium & gold mining in chita, russia. sounds like more of the same-ole, same-ole to me.

Posted by: b real | Apr 12 2005 21:12 utc | 23

b real

again you locate the wisdom where the plunderers take their fill - amongst the idigenous people - the real treasure. it is also true i think in australia that a great deal of uranium is on aboriginal land & the govt there will do as the americans have done & do to the indians - destroy them as a culture as a people as an entity

the vanity of modern man & his experiments have less to do with wonder than with ravishment in the legal sense of that word

the absolute rapacity of capitalism is revealed openly in relation to uranium. they really do not care - the do not care at all - if it exists mine it if it cannot be mined destroy it

the ancient 'texts' of indigenous people only highlight the spiritual poverty we live - especially & perhaps precisely in relation to the terre

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 12 2005 22:00 utc | 24

not to mention, this waste, if it's not getting tossed into lands of our "enemies" and their children or turned into flouride & added to our drinking water, gets dumped on the indigenous, the poor & the exploited. yucca mtn, which has been given a reprieve thankfully, is not on u.s. territory. it's on western shoshone land. and down under, there's a radioactive exposure tour from this friday april 15- saturday april 23 to draw attention to a campaign against nuclear dumping on aboriginal lands.

Posted by: b real | Apr 12 2005 23:10 utc | 25

left out a link for the radioactive expousure tour above

Posted by: b real | Apr 12 2005 23:13 utc | 26

thanks b real, I was going to get there after taking a deep breath :-) afaik filthier than gold mining. gee, a use (say the plutes!) for all those "unproductive mouths," those 4 or so bio humans who are neither rich enough to be consumers nor useful as workers. let them mine uranium...

ugh. another "externalised" cost. so, where does the uranium come from for the well-managed French reactors, and who mines it, and what damage is experienced at the source point (and does anyone pay for it, except the disenfranchised locals)? a missing page of the annual report...

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 13 2005 0:21 utc | 27

r'giap - the absolute rapacity of capitalism is revealed openly in relation to uranium. this is so true. another open vein, indeed.

Posted by: b real | Apr 13 2005 3:49 utc | 28

From China Daily:

China plans 40 more nuclear plants
Updated: 2005-04-07 09:53

China plans to build 40 nuclear power plants over the next 15 years, making them the main power source for its booming east coast, a government technology official says.

"Nuclear power will play an increasingly important role in the development of China's power industry," said Zhang Fubao, an official of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, quoted Thursday by the Xinhua news agency.

China is expected to be the world's biggest developer of nuclear power stations in coming decades as the government tries to meet soaring demands for electricity while reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants.

With no plants planned in the United States and few in other Western countries, suppliers of equipment are looking to China to drive sales in their industry.

Zhang, deputy director of the system engineering department under the technology commission, was speaking Wednesday at a symposium on the nuclear power market and technology.

Zhang said the Chinese nuclear industry's generating capacity was expected to reach 40 million kilowatts in 2020, though it didn't say how that compared to current levels.

"Nuclear power will become the pillar of energy supply in coastal areas of east China," the center of the country's export-driven economic boom, he was quoted as saying.

China is reviewing plans for expanding two nuclear power plants and proposals to start building two more in the booming southern provinces of Guangdong and Zhejiang, Xinhua said.

According to Xinhua, China's nuclear power plants supplied 50.4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity last year, accounting for 2.3 percent of the national total.

Posted by: d52boy | Apr 13 2005 11:43 utc | 29

And another from China Daily:

China displays new nuclear reactor
Updated: 2004-10-01 00:56

China showed off its first new generation of reactor on Beijing's northern outskirts Thursday in an effort to demonstrate not only its safety and reliability but its progress in overcoming its chronic energy shortage.

The high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, designed at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, was on display at a location near the Great Wall, roughly 40 km north of downtown Beijing.

More than 60 atomic energy experts from over 30 countries watched the safety operation, in which the reactor successfully cooled down after the control stick was pulled out. The operation had been demonstrated before.

Scientists have said the major safety issue regarding nuclear reactors lies in how to cool them efficiently, as they continue produce heat even after shutdown.

Gas-cooled reactors are now widely considered the most secure. They don't need additional safety systems, as do water cooled reactor, and they discharge surplus heat, which could damage elements of the device.

"It will not cause a catastrophe such as the one at Chernobyl in the Ukraine at any time," said Qian Jihui, former deputy chief of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a noted atomic scientist with an international reputation.

IAEA official Byung-Koo Kim said that the operation of the reactor was "rather impressive."

Owing to technological improvement, Kim acknowledged, gas- cooled reactors will be introduced extensively for business purposes in the coming decades, and international cooperation will also be greatly reinforced.

China is the fifth nation in the world to master the technology + the others being the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan - - and remains in the lead in the peaceful application of nuclear energy, said Qian.

Andrew C. Kadak, former president of the American Nuclear Society and a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said after the demonstration that MIT has reached an agreement with Tsinghua University on research cooperation.

With an budget of more than 250 million yuan (approximately 30 million US dollars), the gas-cooled reactor was constructed in 1995 and incorporated into the power network in 2003.

With helium refrigerant and ceramic components, fuel temperature in the reactor can reach up to 1,600 degrees Celsius.

Qian said China is building another high-temperature gas-cooled reactor with a capacity of 160,000 kw. It will be completed in 2010 with a total cost of 2 billion yuan (some 240 million US dollars) at either Qingdao or Anqing City.

China, which detonated its first atomic bomb in 1964, has focused on the civil use of nuclear energy since the 1980s.

Two nuclear power plants started operation in the 1990s and four more are under construction. Their cost is much higher than ordinary power generators because they all use water-cooled reactors and imported technologies, noted Qian.

Experts believe the use of gas-cooled reactors will significantly cut costs and enhance the competitive edge of nuclear power plants, which might finally trigger a new revolution in the energy field.

Analysts held that China would surely run short of petroleum due to its rapid economic development and energy consumption.

Nuclear electricity accounts for 2 percent of China's energy consumption. It is likely to reach 6 percent in 2020, still low compared with world average of 16 percent, the analysts said.

Posted by: d52boy | Apr 13 2005 11:52 utc | 30

Western engineer, 1985:
Sure, nuclear plants are safe. Look at the Soviet, we consider them to be some of the best. 1 out of 1 mio chances of having any big accident.

Western engineer, 1987:
Sure, our nuclear plants are safe. The Soviet ones, well, they were outdated models with bad maintenance. Ours are more modern, far superior, far safer. 1 out of 10 mio chances of having any big accident.

That said, this is a fine technology. It produces so much DU that we can have it for free for our weapons. And it's absolutely harmless, as any Serb or Iraqi could testify.

Posted by: Clueless Joe | Apr 13 2005 13:06 utc | 31

Sorry, but I can't find my notes of Dave Elliott's calculations of energy costs (I think the talk was back in 2002), but I'll email him, he must have a better filing system than me (not difficult).

One thing that intrigues me - how do the Japanese deal with liability insurance for their nuclear plants given that they are built in a major earthquake zone?

Posted by: Dismal Science | Apr 13 2005 13:25 utc | 32

@CJ you raise a relevant point, one which I think bears deeper discussion -- but I've no time right now to delve into it satisfactorily. That is the breakdown of trust between laypersons and the scientific/engineering establishment. This is imho mostly due to the intrusion of corporate power and profiteering into the academy, corrupting the scientific process, leading to falsification of results and an endless series of scandals, coverups, pillorying of whistleblowers, and eventually costly class-action suits, reparations, etc. This is not a recent development but an ongoing, consistent issue due in part to the technologically-driven culture of US industry (always trying to be innovative and commercialise cutting-edge results) and in part to the country's sick reliance on its arms/munitions manufacturing nexus as a primary engine of prosperity (25 pct of GDP at last reckoning iirc).

The public (in the US at least) has every reason to be skeptical and sulky when technocrats say soothingly (and condescendingly) that Technology XYZZY is "perfectly safe." They have said this before and lied, and not out of ignorance but knowingly, as documents released decades later consistently show. There is a serious decay of trust between the proles and the technomanagerial classes, for good reasons, and it plays all too well with the rising tide of anti-intellectualism on the Right.

Two good compendia of these betrayals of the public interest are Trust Us We're Experts and Toxic Sludge is Good For You from the Rampton/Stauber team...

Americans -- with good reason -- trust neither their scientists nor their government. This makes megalethal technologies like nuke plants a hard sell.

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 13 2005 18:28 utc | 33

Dr Elliott got back to me. The following projected costs (based on his work) were included in The Energy Review (2002) published by the UK Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit (the closest direct advisers to Tony Blair in other words):

"Cost of electricity in the UK in 2020 (pence/kWh):

Land-based wind , 1.5-2.5p/kWh
Large CHP/co-generation , under 2p/kWh
Gas CCGT , 2-2.3p/kWh
Offshore wind, 2-3p/kWh
Micro CHP, 2.3-3.5p/kWh
Energy crops, 2.5-4p/kWh
Coal (IGCC) , 3–3.5p/kWh
Wave & tidal power , 3-6p/kWh
Nuclear , 3-4p/kWh
PV solar , 10-16p/kWh"

On a small, densely populated island like the UK, where a nuclear accident of the Chernobyl type would be devastating (farms in Scotland and Wales were affected by Chernobyl fallout for years after), I would prefer to go with all the renewables options up to wave/tidal power over nuclear on economic grounds as the costs appear more reasonable. On moral grounds nuclear (uranium mining, logistics of waste disposal incl military industrial complex needed to maintain long-term guard over, use of depleted uranium as military weapon, let alone the liability issues) is a much less favourable option IMHO.

Dr Elliott, who used to work in the nuclear industry, recently (15th March 2005) organised a day-long conference at the Open University, "Nuclear or Not?", which was attended by the former UK Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. The four conference sessions can be viewed (with QuickTime) here (go to past events page, scroll down to March 15th 2005, "Nuclear or Not?" and click through - links are at bottom of the conference details page.) Various (PowerPoint and other) presentations from the day can be read

Posted by: Dismal Science | Apr 15 2005 17:01 utc | 34

DS, any chance of a summary of the conclusions of that conference?

Posted by: Colman | Apr 15 2005 17:05 utc | 35

Urk, hit post instead of preview ...

A one-line summary, assuming that you've looked at the stuff already!

Posted by: Colman | Apr 15 2005 17:07 utc | 36

Not all of it yet, Colman, and I am away from Internet for weekend. But for starters this paper on security issues for nuclear scared the beejesus out of me.

Among other scary stuff, apparently the EU agency, Euratom, is currently in dispute with one of the most notorious UK nuclear plants, Sellafield (the one across the Irish Sea from where you are), over how it accounts for the nuclear materials it holds. As the UK is one of the biggest reprocessors of nuclear waste (eg shipped from Japan, US), this is not an inconsequential problem.

Posted by: Dismal Science | Apr 15 2005 17:20 utc | 37

At the risk of being a complete bore, there's an interesting discussion of costs of various non-CO2 producing energy sources from 2002 UK Cabinet Office PIU Energy Review) here, which includes the following:

"6.52 Environmental risks. At the moment there is no agreed solution to the very long term management of radioactive waste. DEFRA [UK Dept of the Environment] has recently initiated a review of nuclear waste management with the aim of reaching a public consensus on acceptable ways to deal with existing and unavoidable waste. It is envisaged that this process will take five years [to c2007]."

Posted by: Dismal Science | Apr 15 2005 17:39 utc | 38

Isn't that sort of like artificial intelligence? Always 50 years away. There's always a plan for dealing with nuclear waste in 5 years time.

Posted by: Colman | Apr 15 2005 17:42 utc | 39

Good one Colman. Yep, like cold fusion and cost-effective hydrogen -- it's always just a few years away.

Meanwhile, appropriately enough,>The indefatigable Helen Caldicott pleads against nuke plants as a "green" power source -- as she has been an anti-nuke campaigner for years this is not surprising, but she makes some quantitative assertsion here which bear consideration:

At present there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. If, as the nuclear industry suggests, nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, it would be necessary to build 2000 large, 1000-megawatt reactors. Considering that no new nuclear plant has been ordered in the US since 1978, this proposal is less than practical. Furthermore, even if we decided today to replace all fossil-fuel-generated electricity with nuclear power, there would only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for three to four years.

The true economies of the nuclear industry are never fully accounted for. The cost of uranium enrichment is subsidised by the US government. The true cost of the industry's liability in the case of an accident in the US is estimated to be $US560billion ($726billion), but the industry pays only $US9.1billion - 98per cent of the insurance liability is covered by the US federal government. The cost of decommissioning all the existing US nuclear reactors is estimated to be $US33billion. These costs - plus the enormous expense involved in the storage of radioactive waste for a quarter of a million years - are not now included in the economic assessments of nuclear electricity.

It is said that nuclear power is emission-free. The truth is very different.

In the US, where much of the world's uranium is enriched, including Australia's, the enrichment facility at Paducah, Kentucky, requires the electrical output of two 1000-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for 50per cent of global warming.

Also, this enrichment facility and another at Portsmouth, Ohio, release from leaky pipes 93per cent of the chlorofluorocarbon gas emitted yearly in the US. The production and release of CFC gas is now banned internationally by the Montreal Protocol because it is the main culprit responsible for stratospheric ozone depletion. But CFC is also a global warmer, 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In fact, the nuclear fuel cycle utilises large quantities of fossil fuel at all of its stages - the mining and milling of uranium, the construction of the nuclear reactor and cooling towers, robotic decommissioning of the intensely radioactive reactor at the end of its 20 to 40-year operating lifetime, and transportation and long-term storage of massive quantities of radioactive waste.

In summary, nuclear power produces, according to a 2004 study by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, only three times fewer greenhouse gases than modern natural-gas power stations.

OTOH, natural gas is also running out. so the comparison is perhaps not a cheery one.>Chernobyl 19 years later

Following acute international pressure, the Ukrainian government closed the last working reactor in 2000. The plant's activities revolve these days around maintenance of the concrete 'sarcophagus' that covers the ruins of the explosion.

While radiation levels are not excessive at present, the precariousness of the structure has compelled the government to approve construction of a new safe confinement surmounting the old concrete block.

The project has already kicked off, but ”the overall cost of the task is 1 billion, 91 million dollars,” Igor Vasilevich from the Ministry of Fuel and Energy told IPS. ”We had donations from several developed countries, but it's far from enough.”

In line with dominant international interests, most current government efforts are directed at increasing nuclear safety levels. But there is also a costly social dimension to Chernobyl.

Ukraine had to outgrow two separate Chernobyl traumas: the first following the explosion, the second when mass media gave a true account of its consequences. It is estimated that around six million people have been affected in some manner. Even a close estimate of the number of deaths will probably never be reached.

Up to 50 were reported dead as a result of immediate exposure. Other estimates range from 250 to a few thousand.

But many continue to face grave health problems. The most dramatic is the situation of the so-called ”children of Chernobyl” who grew up in contaminated areas and now suffer from thyroid cancer.

Such vague, hard-to-quantify costs. Death that comes very slowly, or a lifetime of ill health and dependency on an already overburdened medical system. Evacuated villages -- villages of illegal squatters defying the background count. Depression and alienation among the relocated. And a quantified estimate of $1Bn plus change for continuing the containment project. And that's after 20 years and how many billions already?

Single-failure costs are very, very high with this technology.

When we consider that we could cut demand by half simply by aggressively phasing out inefficient technologies, and probably more deeply by cost increases and punitive taxes on above-baseline consumption -- I dunno, the notion that "we cannot consume less and the only way we can go on consuming the same is to build 2000 nuke plants, so bring on the bulldozers!" seems irrational somehow.

I'm most interested in Caldicott's claim that there is only enough uranium for 3 or 4 years of a burn rate sufficient to match our present fossil fuel consumption. I wonder what figures this is based on... I wonder if she answers email, 'cos if this is true then the whole "nukes will save us" line seems dead in the water before it even gets started. You need 40 years to get a 2:1 payback on these plants. If you run out of fuel at year 4 or 5 then it's a dead, stinking loss.

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 15 2005 18:31 utc | 40

it would be necessary to build 2000 large, 1000-megawatt reactors. Considering that no new nuclear plant has been ordered in the US since 1978, this proposal is less than practical.

I don't agree here. Reactors so far have never been mass produced but nearly each one is engineering piece of itself. Reactors constructed to be mass produced would it make viable to build some hundred a year.

only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for three to four years

What is economical viable uranium. For a miner it is the price to get the stuff out of the ground versus the price he can sell it for. If she talks about that then this question gets solved by the markets.

Did you know that Uranium was one of THE best investments in the last years. The price has trippled since 2001 chart

Higher price - more economical viable uranium.
Now I am not sure I want more nuclear energy. But I would like more viable information.

Posted by: b | Apr 15 2005 18:49 utc | 41

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