Response to Lovins, December 2005

29 April 2010

The first point I would make is that we should encourage Dr Lovins in his advocacy of small-scale technologies, and let those who want to pick up on them and use them. Conversely, we need to also ensure that development proceeds and rational choices are made on large-scale technologies with the characteristics of cost-effectiveness and low carbon emissions. For the most part I do not see them as competing.

One small matter he appears to have overlooked is the development of small-scale nuclear plants, which promise to contribute admirably to his vaunted non-biomass decentralised cogeneration statistics. Toshiba's 10 MWe version of its 4S plant proposed for Galena in Alaska is one, the SSTAR from USA at 20 MWe is another. WNA trusts that he will factor those in to future prognostications.

Getting into the detail of the article, there is not a little sophistry. Some is simply inscrutable. For instance, having said that in his view the correlation between government subsidy level and installation of renewables such as wind power is not clear-cut, he continues: "Neither are per-kWh subsidies' relative sizes for renewable versus central plants, particularly nuclear power." If this means that the correlation between the size of subsidies for renewables and the size of subsidies for central/nuclear is not clear-cut, or that the effect on installation rates of each is not clear-cut, one might ask several questions. First, is he really asserting that installation of grid-connected wind power doesn't depend on subsidies? But the main one is: what subsidies for nuclear power? Where is nuclear power subsidised today? OK, some limited subsidies are now on offer in the USA for step up to new technology, but Lovins is talking past and continuing arrangements.

He then asserts that "the WNA commits (sic) two common fallacies: supposing that large amounts of electricity requires large generating units, and forgetting that ... many small units near customers are more reliable than fewer, bigger units far away." Really? We simply say that continuous reliable supply on a large-scale is best served by largish plants such as nuclear ones, and have never commented on how far away they might be nor on their reliability relative to small gas-fired plants (such as he espouses). We have said that they are much more reliable than wind and solar, which simply states the blindingly obvious.

WNA is also accused of "denying the existence of a large and compelling literature of nuclear-free, least-cost, long-term scenarios published over decades". We have never denied the existence of a whole lot of such literature, but find it extremely unpersuasive or irrelevant. We therefore ignore it. Who wouldn't? Lovins links this assertion to a 1989 Vattenfall publication which looked at the possibility of nuclear phase-out, considered a possibility way back then. He conveniently ignores more recent Vattenfall work, including their Environmental Product Declarations, which show up nuclear in a very positive light on the basis of audited data. The recent work demolishes some of the folkore Lovins later turns to.

We then get a Figure with some dubious data which he uses to support an assertion that nuclear power costs 10 cents per kWh "at its 2004 US subsidy levels and costs". Sorry, but what is the basis for this? US subsidies for nuclear in 2004 will be news to many, especially US utilities. In fact US production costs excluding capital are under 2 cents/kWh, adding capital possibly doubles that, or for a brand new plant perhaps triple.

Lovins then turns to the old hobby-horse of end-use efficiency. WNA has no problems with anyone making efforts to improve end-use efficiency, as many of us eagerly do in our own affairs. But wheeling out the infamous Keepin & Kats paper from 1988 to assert that efficiency is seven times as cost-effective in reducing CO2 as nuclear power is laughable. Extrapolating from a small-scale study (on refrigerators, if I recollect rightly) to a universal assertion defies logic. However, it has been picked up triumphantly by every part of the green movement and put forward as a plank in the anti-nuke folklore, viz: "energy conservation is seven times more cost-effective than nuclear power". Of course logically this means, in effect, that all we need to do is keep saving energy and never again build any nuclear power plant (or by implication anything else that delivers power at similar cost). Lovins does not in fact do that on this occasion. Instead he quotes his colleagues' "still-reasonable" and "qualitatively robust" outpourings via some complex sophistry to suggest a high carbon intensity for nuclear power.

We don't need to go to the dodgy and discredited conclusions of a 1988 paper to resolve this. We have numbers, courtesy of many authors since then and of companies such as Vattenfall which have rigorously audited the situation. While their CO2 emission figure of 3.1 g/kWh for Forsmark LCA is well below industry norms because of the high input of nuclear power to enrichment, figures of around 20 g/kWh are well and widely supported - around 2% of coal's CO2 output (around 1 kg/kWh at the power station only). That is for full life cycle. The facts are thus diametrically opposed to Lovins' quoted assertion that nuclear power is some six times as carbon intensive as coal-fired power. They do some funny arithmetic in the rarefied atmosphere of Colorado.

"If climate matters, we must invest judiciously, not indiscriminately, to procure the most climate solution per dollar and per year." Yes indeed, and I am sure your readers will appreciate the sermon so that they rein in their tendencies to throw shareholders' money around injudiciously and indiscriminately! Intelligent and judicious investment to meet power demand in many countries is shaping up increasingly to be nuclear.

While we applaud Lovins' advocacy of small-scale technology and energy efficiency, his obsessive ongoing vendetta against nuclear power does not enhance your pages.

Regards, Ian Hore-Lacy

Director of Public Communications

World Nuclear Association, London

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