Michael Mazengarb.

29 July 2019

A new study of the economics of nuclear power has found it has never been financially viable, that most plants have been built while heavily subsidised by governments, often motivated by military purposes, and that nuclear power is not a good approach to tackling climate change.

The study has come from DIW Berlin, a leading German economic think tank. It found, after reviewing trends in nuclear power plant construction since 1951, that the average 1,000MW nuclear power plant would incur an average economic loss of 4.8 billion euros ($7.7 billion AUD).

The report comes amid hot debate over the future of nuclear power in Germany and Australia.

The report, published by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin), reviewed the development of 674 nuclear power plants built since 1951, finding none of the plants was built using ‘private capital under competitive conditions’.

‘The results showed that, in all cases, an investment would generate significant financial losses. The (weighted) average net present value was around minus 4.8 billion euros’, the study says.

‘Even in the best case, the net present value was approximately minus 1.5 billion euros’. The authors included conservative assumptions with high electricity prices, low capital costs, and specific investment. ‘Considering all assumptions regarding the uncertain parameters, nuclear energy is never profitable’.

The report’s authors are also pessimistic about the future of nuclear power, concluding that it will remain unprofitable into the foreseeable future.

Unlike Australia, Germany has a history of nuclear power use, supplying as recently as 2010, around a quarter of Germany’s electricity.

The government, led by Angela Merkel, has committed to the complete phase-out of nuclear power by 2022.

nuclear power phasedown

The report found that, when nuclear power plants were built using private investment, ‘large state subsidies’ were used to make the projects viable, and that, in most cases, nuclear power stations were built at a loss.

nuclear power plant NPV Costs BIW Berlin

DIW Berlin calculated that, for every 1,000 Megawatts of nuclear power capacity that may be constructed under different conditions, there would be an average economic loss of between 1.5 to 8.9 billion Euros ($A2.4 to $A14.3 Billion).

‘Nuclear power was never designed for commercial electricity generation; it was aimed at nuclear weapons. That is why nuclear electricity has been and will continue to be uneconomical. Further, nuclear energy is by no means ‘clean’. Its radioactivity will endanger humans and the natural world for over one million years’, Christian von Hirschhausen, co-author of the study said.

The DIW Berlin report stressed that governments should not be seduced by claims that nuclear power was a solution to the climate crisis.

”Nuclear energy for climate protection’ is an old narrative as inaccurate today as it was in the 1970s. Describing nuclear energy as ‘clean’ ignores the significant environmental risks and radioactive emissions it engenders along the process chain and beyond’, the report concluded.

While examining the history of nuclear power development globally, DIW Berlin found that military considerations were the primary driver of nuclear reactor developments, with power generation a secondary product.

The further development of nuclear weapons and other military applications were the focus. Nuclear power plants were primarily designed to be ‘plutonium factories with appended electricity production’, the DIW Berlin report said.

The report echoes an estimate of the costs of new electricity generation in Australia produced by the CSIRO, which found that renewables remain the lowest cost of new electricity generation, with nuclear power among the most expensive, as a result of substantial upfront costs to build a nuclear plant.

Federal energy minister Angus Taylor fuelled speculation that the Government would consider actively the calls from within its own ranks to revisit the question of nuclear power, including those of Barnaby Joyce, who said he would welcome nuclear power in his own electorate if it meant constituents would receive free electricity.

‘We currently have a moratorium on nuclear power generation in Australia, and the government has no plans to change that. Now, we always approach these things with an open mind, but we do not have a plan to change the moratorium’, Taylor said during Question Time.

Nuclear power in Australia is currently forbidden under the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Michael Mazengarb is a journalist with RenewEconomy, based in Sydney. Previously, Michael worked in the renewable energy sector for more than a decade. This article of 29 July 2019 is republished from RenewEconomy.com.au which has run since 2012, and sends its daily newsletter to 16,000 people.
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