The Shape Of Things To Come ?  

Posted by Big Gav

The Economist has a fairly pro-nuclear article out - obviously the PR campaign is working. However they do note the economics of nuclear still aren't very compelling (without even discussing rising uranium prices).

They are also still talking about the price of oil falling in future, so they must still be in the CERA optimists camp (whom they also quote on the nuclear sector).

THINGS have not gone well for the nuclear industry over the past quarter century or so. First came the Three Mile Island accident in America in 1979, then the disaster at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986. In Japan, Tokyo Electric Power, the world's largest private electricity company, shut its 17 nuclear reactors after it was caught falsifying safety records to hide cracks at some of its plants in 2002. And the attacks on September 11th 2001 were a sharp reminder that the risks of nuclear power generation were not only those inherent in the technology.

Nor was safety the only worry: there were financial problems too. British Energy, Britain's nuclear-energy operator, required successive government bail-outs. Britain also recently finalised a £50 billion ($90 billion) scheme to deal with the nuclear-waste liabilities of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), an inept re-processor of nuclear waste that is itself bust.

But lately, things have brightened for the nuclear industry. In Asia, which never turned against it in the way the West did, the prospects are excellent. China already has nine nuclear reactors, and is planning to commission a further 30. New capacity is being built or considered in India, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Russia has several plants under construction.

Now western governments are increasingly looking anew at nuclear energy.


In many power markets today, nuclear electricity is the cheapest you can buy. Entergy's deregulated nuclear plants produced 13% of its revenues but a quarter of its profits last year. It costs German utilities perhaps 1.5 (American) cents per kW-hour to make nuclear electricity, estimates Vincent Gilles of UBS, an investment bank, but they can sell it for three times that amount once credits from Europe's carbon-trading scheme are included. In contrast, it costs 3.1-3.8 cents to produce power from natural gas in Germany and 3.8-4.4 cents to produce it from coal. In America, where there is no mandatory carbon regulation (and hence no penalty on fossil fuels), nuclear power has less of an edge: coal power costs about 2 cents per kW-hour on average today, gas-fired power costs about 5.7 cents, while nuclear cranks out electricity at 1.7 cents or so.

But the economic case is not as clear-cut as it seems. The costs of nuclear power produced by existing plants are likely to be far lower than the costs of newly built plants, because the capital costs of nuclear plants—typically reflecting half to two-thirds the value of the project in present-value terms—are long forgotten. Most of today's plants were built in an era when central planners or state utility boards had no idea of the true cost of capital. Today's low interest rates are good for big capital projects like nuclear, but those rates may change sharply in the future. At the same time, gas and oil prices—whose current astronomical levels enhance nuclear's charms—may well fall.

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