Burning in the dark

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
March 15, 2008

After scores of bankruptcies and bailouts, many if not most energy analysts recognize nuclear electricity for what it has been: the single biggest business disaster in history.

But nuclear power’s failings extend beyond the red ink on the balance sheets to the limitations in the technology. The nuclear reactor, though efficient in medical and military applications, is ill-suited for the production of electricity in a sophisticated power market of diverse customers with diverse needs

Non-nuclear power stations such as hydroelectric, coal and gas can generally power up or down quickly, making them suitable to meeting the periods of peak demand that occur during the day, for example, in the mornings when people shower (calling on their water heaters) and when they breakfast (calling on their toasters and tea kettles). Starting at about dawn, as people awaken and begin to use these appliances, operators of power systems systematically bring on this non-nuclear power. No jurisdiction in the world starts up nuclear reactors to meet peak needs because doing so would be dangerous as well as expensive. Unlike other generators, nuclear plants do not have the flexibility to be easily started up or shut down. They run continually, meeting what is called the “base load.”

Nuclear proponents portray the technology’s base-load role as a strength. They tout nuclear power as an economic workhorse that provides the stability and reliability that power systems – and especially industrial customers – need. In fact, nuclear power is neither economic nor stable nor reliable. Being limited to a base-load role, which in practice means dominating the market in the middle of the night when people and industries are idle, is no source of strength.

Where nuclear plants do not exist, which is to say in most Canadian provinces and most of the jurisdictions of the world, nonnuclear plants run in the middle of the night. Any plant can be a base-load plant, running at times when power supplies are plentiful and power prices are low – often 2¢ a kilowatt hour. But no nuclear plant can be a peaking plant, and operate when power supplies are tight and power dear – routinely 15¢ to 20¢ a kilowatt hour, and often much, much more. This limitation in the nuclear technology is the chief reason that British Energy, a well-run U.K. nuclear generating company, became insolvent after the U.K. government privatized it and why no nuclear generating company in the world could survive in a free electricity market in which it needed to compete against generators better suited to meeting the many needs of a complex marketplace.

Base-load plants, before the arrival of nuclear power, were typically low-cost, low-performance stations – the stations that were incapable of meeting high-value needs, but as a saving grace they were the lowest-cost plants in the utility’s fleet. With the advent of nuclear reactors, base-load plants became high-cost, low-performance nuclear stations – the utilities had no other use for them.

Ontario, one of the most nuclearized jurisdictions in the world, provides a good example of how base-load nuclear plants, rather than lower the costs of a power system, raise them. The two Ontario companies that operate nuclear plants, Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power, receive more money per kilowatt-hour for their base-load nuclear power than, for example, Ontario Power Generation receives for its more reliable, more flexible, and more valuable coal-fired power. They receive these high payments even though much of the cost of building the reactors doesn’t show up in the electricity rates – power consumers pay for those nuclear plants’ government bailout through a separate levy. Even these rewards aren’t enough – Ontario Power Generation is now asking for payment increases of as much as 14%.

Nuclear plants not only don’t lower costs, as base-load plants historically have, they also don’t increase reliability. Just the opposite. Nuclear plants experience crippling downtimes, both planned and unplanned. For one stretch lasting almost seven years, from 1998 to 2004, eight Ontario reactors were out of service – without Ontario’s coal plants, the province would have experienced massive blackouts and forced rationing, just as in Third World countries. Last summer, when two newly refurbished reactors at Pickering produced nothing at all over several months, only the coal plants and favourable weather prevented blackouts.

Ontario’s nuclear plants have consistently failed to meet their projections for reliability and durability, and have proven to be less reliable than either coal, gas or hydro plants. To protect itself from future losses due to unreliability, Ontario Power Generation is asking for protection from its own forecasts – it wants to be relieved of 25% of the financial responsibility for falling short of its promises, noting openly the unique risks of operating nuclear plants.

Nuclear operators know that their reactors are unreliable and that their estimates are not to be believed. The government bodies, taxpayers, and captive ratepayers that fund these plants should know this too.

This is part two of a series by Lawrence Solomon, executive director of Energy Probe.

Related articles:
The limits to nuclear: McCain shouldn’t try to follow French disaster

Apocalypse now?
Warmed-over nukes

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