REVIEW BY PROFESSOR PAUL EKINS (UCL) FOR UCL OPEN ENVIRONMENT OF
Decarbonising the EU Power Sector: a Technological and Socio-economic Analysis and the Role of Nuclear
Maria Papadopoulou, Roberto Passalacqua, Domenico Rossetti di Valdalbero, Elena Righi Steele
This paper looks at the possible role of nuclear power in the EU Power Sector. It does not do any modelling itself but investigates the issue through a number of scenarios done by others.
I definitely cannot recommend this paper for publication, as it is far too biased a treatment of the issue for a scientific journal. The paper makes inaccurate comments about the representation of the costs of renewables in energy models and its coverage of the costs of nuclear power is wholly inadequate.
The paper appears to have been authored while the lead author was working in the Euratom branch of the European Commission’s DG Research and Innovation. The bias towards nuclear in this paper is shown in the following ways:
- Costs of renewables: there are repeated assertions that in the modelling of the costs of renewables only plant-level costs are included (p.15 footnote 17, p.24, p.27), and that this, by ignoring the costs of variability and intermittency, does not treat them on the same basis as nuclear, which does not have these characteristics. This may be true for some calculations of LCOE, but is emphatically not the case for good energy system models I am aware of, including the IEA models used for the World Energy Outlook and Energy Technology Perspectives, the PRIMES model often used by the European Commission and others. All these models seek to take account of the need for storage and system balancing with variable renewables – and all of them regularly show renewables to be cheaper than nuclear. There is almost no mention of this literature – and that which is mentioned does not lend support to a significant increase in nuclear power in Europe.
- Cost reductions of renewables: there is no mention at all of the 85% cost reduction in renewables over the past 10 years, the principal fact why new renewables are now cheaper (even with storage and balancing costs) than new nuclear.
- Subsidies for renewables: there is mention of the very large subsidies paid to renewables (p.12), without mention that these are almost all ‘legacy’ subsidies from some years ago, when new renewables were still expensive. In contrast, no mention is made of the very large subsidies that were paid to nuclear when nuclear power stations were being built. As for current nuclear power, the electricity from Hinckley Point C in the UK will be easily the most expensive power in the UK when it finally comes on stream, having been promised an index-linked £93.5/MWh (2012 GBP); auctions for offshore wind will deliver power for £40/MWh).
- There is no clear distinction made between the costs of extending the life of current nuclear power stations (relatively cheap), and the cost of building new nuclear power stations (very expensive). Rather the discussion seems to treat them in the same way, implying that the costs of these nuclear options are similar.
- There is the statement that the cost assessments of nuclear take into account the costs of decommissioning and waste storage (p.24). It is not clear to me how this can be the case, given that many countries still do not know how they will solve these problems. According to the most recent estimate of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority “it will cost current and future generations of UK taxpayers £132 billion to decommission the UK’s civil nuclear sites, and the work will not be completed for another 120 years - with significant impacts on the lives of those who live near the sites.” I have very little confidence that waste and decommissioning costs will be better handled for new nuclear power stations.
- Nuclear power stations continue to experience serious cost escalation. The most recent new nuclear power stations in Europe (Olkiluoto in Finland, Flamanville in France, Hinckley Point C in UK), have experienced huge cost and time over-runs. Yet the only estimate in the paper of future nuclear costs (a 37% reduction, p.22) comes from a 2018 paper by FTI Consulting, paid for by Foratom, “the Voice of the European Nuclear Industry”. This industry has routinely underestimated the future costs of its technology since the 1950s when it famously predicted that it would be ‘too cheap to meter’. The paper relies heavily on this study, with frequent references to it. As an academic I would place precisely zero confidence in this cost forecast.
- There is a suggestion that because of ‘social acceptability’ problems, nuclear power has not had the opportunity to experience “cost reduction through economies of scale” (p.27). This is bizarre given the fact that France, a major European economy, has built nuclear power stations that for many years have generated 70% or more of its electricity.
- Capital cost comparisons between renewables and nuclear are extremely important for the argument in the paper, which repeatedly emphasises that the load factors for renewables are less than for nuclear. But if the costs of building renewables capacity are much less than the costs of building nuclear power stations (even with storage and balancing costs, as seems to be case in energy systems models of the European power system), then renewable power can still be cheaper than nuclear power.
I can imagine no changes to this paper that would make it suitable for publication in a scientific journal. It would have to be completely re-written, i.e. it would have to be a new, much more balanced, paper. I therefore recommend its rejection by UCL Open.