No Solar Way Around It

Why Nuclear Is Essential to Combating Climate Change


In response to a recent Breakthrough Institute study comparing Finnish nuclear with German solar, renewables advocates claim that we cherry-picked our data in order to privilege nuclear. In fact, we cherry-picked the most expensive example of nuclear to demonstrate how solar still proves substantially more expensive when scaled to significant levels.

June 07, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Nobody who has paid attention to what's happened to solar panels over the last several decades can help but be impressed. Prices declined an astonishing 75 percent from 2008 to 2012. In the United States, solar capacity has quintupled since 2008, and grown by more than 50 times since 2000, according to US Energy Information Administration data. In 1977, solar panels cost $77 per watt. Today, they are less than a dollar per watt.

So it came as a shock to many and an offense to some to learn that new nuclear plants still cost substantially less than solar. Solar advocates have challenged our recent analysis finding that the electricity from Finland's beleaguered Olkiluoto plant is still four times cheaper than electricity from Germany's solar program, claiming that we cherry-picked cases to make nuclear look good and solar look bad.

It is an odd objection, given that we selected perhaps the most expensive nuclear power plant ever built for our comparison. The complaint is odder still because many of the same critics who accused us of cherry-picking then turned around and, without any apparent irony, cherry-picked small, one-off solar projects as evidence that our analysis is slanted toward nuclear. 

The reason we compared the Finnish plant to the German solar program is not just because renewables advocates have long claimed that the two examples prove that solar is cheap and nuclear is expensive. We also compared the two because both projects exist in the real world at significant scale, which helps avoid the cherry-picking problem of overgeneralizing from particular cases. Thanks to generous subsidies, Germany generated 5 percent of its electricity from solar last year — a huge amount compared to other nations. By contrast, last year the United States produced just 0.18 percent of its electricity from solar, according to the EIA.

Some have reasonably asked if there aren't broader surveys of the costs of new solar and new nuclear. There are. Both the International Energy Agency and the EIA have done them, and both find that solar costs substantially more than new nuclear construction.

While those figures represent the cost of the average solar installation today, they don't tell us what it costs for a major industrial economy to scale up solar rapidly, such that it gets a significant percentage of its electricity from solar. To date, Germany is the only major economy in the world that has done so. The costs of Germany's solar feed-in tariff represent the only real world figure we have. 

As solar has scaled up in Germany, the costs have declined. But the dynamics are not dissimilar with nuclear. France saw significant cost declines as it scaled up standardized plant designs in the 70s and 80s. The new plant in Finland is a first-of-kind design. Subsequent builds are already showing significantly lower costs. The EPR under construction in France, initiated around the same time as the one in Finland, is expected to cost slightly less. The third and fourth versions of the EPR, currently under construction in China, will be a third the cost of the Finnish plant.

Had we chosen to use the two new Chinese plants, solar would have cost twelve times more than nuclear, rather than just four times more. Of course this comparison would almost certainly have raised further objections that we had compared German apples to Chinese oranges. Yet it turns out that the German solar program has benefited enormously from the scaling up of Chinese solar manufacturing — or in the eyes of the US Solar Energy Association, the US Trade Commission, and the European Union, the outright dumping of solar panels by Chinese firms. Indeed the flood of Chinese solar panels, which take up as much as 80 percent of market share in Europe, has depressed the cost of solar panels by as much as 88 percent according to EU officials.

Surely, if it is appropriate to tout solar cost reductions that have been driven by Chinese mercantilism and industrial policy it is also appropriate to consider the cost benefits that Chinese manufacturing and construction costs are bringing to nuclear ­— even more so given that the vast majority of future carbon emissions will come from places like China, not Finland or Germany.   

Our analysis was further biased toward solar over nuclear by not accounting for the high costs of backing up and integrating intermittent solar electricity. Leading anti-nuclear greens, including Bill McKibben and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., note that for a few hours during a sunny weekend day, solar provided 50 percent of Germany's electricity; at the same time, as we pointed out, only five percent of the country's total electricity came from solar in 2012. What that means is that if Germany doubled the amount of solar, as it intends to do, there might be a few hours or even days every year where the country gets 100 percent of its electricity from solar, even though solar only provides 10 percent of its annual electricity needs.

What happens beyond that is anyone's guess. Some say Germany could sell its power to other countries, but this would mean other countries couldn't move to solar since Germany would provide electricity at the same hours it would seek to unload it on their neighbors. Solar advocates say cheap utility-scale storage is just around the corner; in fact, choices are extremely limited and expensive. As a result, analysis by the Clean Air Task Force suggest that integration costs for solar and wind are likely to surge dramatically should renewables rise much above 20 or 30 percent of total electrical generation (see graph below).

Costs of adding intermittent generation are likely to scale super-linearly with penetration, creating a deployment barrier.  Some examples (various bases) in the figure: “Wind A” is the marginal cost per MWh of wind in ERCOT relative to the same index at 0% wind penetration. “Wind B” is the reciprocal of total system wind capacity factor in CAISO relative to 0% wind penetration (an indicator relative total system construction cost).“Wind C” is the number of annual CCGT start-ups in Ireland relative to 0% wind penetration (a proxy for system-wide O&M costs and emissions due to cycling).“PV” is the marginal cost per MWh of PV in ERCOT relative to the same index at 0% PV penetration. “RE Bundle” is the relative size of the US bulk transmission system (million MW-miles) due to bundled renewables (roughly ½ wind+solar) relative to 0% penetration.

Sources: CATF from Denholm & Hand, 2011 (Wind A); Hart et al, 2012 (Wind B); Troy et al, 2010 (Wind C); Denholm & Margolis, 2006 (PV); NREL, 2012 (RE Bundle). 

We do not present this evidence to advocate against solar subsidies or Germany's program. We have long advocated that governments spend significantly more on energy innovation, including the deployment of solar panels. But it's one thing to endorse Germany's big investment in solar in the name of accelerating solar innovation, and it's quite another to claim — as McKibben, Kennedy, and environmental groups do — that Germany's solar program and increasingly cheap solar panels demonstrate that solar energy is ready to scale, capable of substantially displacing fossil energy, and a viable alternative to nuclear.

In reality, there's little evidence that renewables have supplanted — rather than supplemented — fossil fuel production anywhere in the world. Whatever their merits as innovation policy, Germany’s enormous solar investments have had little discernible impact on carbon emissions. Germany’s move away from baseload zero-carbon nuclear has resulted in higher coal consumption since 2009. In 2012, Germany's carbon emissions rose 2 percent.

Nuclear, by contrast, replaces fossil energy. A recent analysis by the Business Spectator’s Geoff Russell finds that big nuclear programs around the world have shown the ability to scale up three to seven times faster than Germany's vaunted Energiewende (see below). In 1970, fossil fuels supplied roughly two-thirds of France’s electricity, with the balance mostly coming from hydro. By 1990, fossil’s share of the electricity supply had dropped to 10 percent, according to EIA data, while nuclear supplied 80 percent, an energy mix that still holds today. As a result, France’s electricity sector emits 80 grams of COper kWh, compared to Germany’s 450 grams CO2 per kWh. Sweden and Ontario, which also have large shares of nuclear in their electricity supply, augmented by large hydro projects, are even lower. 

In the United States, nuclear power grew from supplying zero percent of US electricity in 1965 to 20 percent in 1990. Over that same period, coal generation remained flat, rising from 54 percent of generation in 1965 to 60 percent in 1990, during a period when total electricity demand roughly tripled. Since the early 1990’s, when the US nuclear build-out stalled, the vast majority of new US electricity demand has been met by coal and gas.

Even so, nuclear still needs to get better and cheaper if it is going to displace fossil energy at any scale that will make much difference in terms of climate change. Next generation plants that are safer, cheaper, and more reliable will be necessary if nuclear is to be more than a hedge against fossil energy in the developing world and to see significant new deployment at all in the developed world. Solar, wind, and energy storage technologies will need substantial further advances if they are going to even begin to achieve the scale possible with present day nuclear.

Our analysis serves a broader point: we must reject technology tribalism if we are to meet rising energy demand and combat global warming. This entails paying close attention to the substantial challenges emergent technologies face, not ignoring them, and discerning how far different technologies are from being capable of replacing fossil energy. The question is not whether solar is the solution, or nuclear. The question is what technologies will deliver clean, reliable, and cheap energy to a growing population, and what it will take to get those technologies to scale. Any movement serious about addressing climate change will thus be characterized by a broad commitment to innovation and a willingness to take a hard, non-ideological look at present day zero-carbon technologies.




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  • Nuclear is clean and cheap as long as nothing ever, ever goes wrong.  One accident and all those cost savings get tossed out the window.  No one wants to live in Fukushima or Chernobyl, so add the costs of displaced people, lost real estate assets, business shutdowns, stock market losses, the continuing costs of maintaining a failed plant, maintenance of spent rods, etc. to your calculus. 

    It’s not tribalism, it’s the experience of seeing two major nuclear accidents in my relatively short life.  Humans make mistakes, and another serious nuclear accident is not only possible, it’s probable.  Solar and wind, not so much.

    By James on 2013 06 07

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  • @James : You didn’t get the UNSCEAR memo about 0 death from radiation in Fukushima, right ? cf

    @BTI : I don’t know what your source is for 80gCO2 in France, but in my book according to the RTE 2012 report for last year it’s 541,4 TWh produced whilst emitting 29,5 GtCO2, therefore 55g instead.
    (you can check here )
    And this is a bad year since 2011 was only 50.5, and 2013 is likely to be similarly low.

    Meanwhile the German AGEB admits to a carbon intensity of 520g or 0,52 kg CO2/kWh in 2012, on page 39 of the “Ausgewählte Effizienzindikatoren zur Energiebilanz Deutschland Daten für die Jahre von 1990 bis 2011 (erste Ergebnisse für 2012)” document issued 05.04.2013 available here :

    By jmdesp on 2013 06 07

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  • What costs are included in the Finnish reactor analysis for the ultimate disposition of the waste?

    By JMcNeish on 2013 06 07

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  • People have been moving back to Chernobyl, and the wildlife there is thriving.  Chernobyl has become an accidental big game wildlife preserve, it is certainly no dead zone.  At Fukushima remains to be seen what the long term effects are.  The worst nuclear accident in the USA was Three Mile Island and that is right in downtown Harrisburg, PA, the state capital, no one was ever required to move away and there was no adverse effects on the region.

    Compared to the routine fatalities and environmental messes from oil and coal nuclear seems like pretty clean and safe to me.

    Solar and Wind are no environmental panacea when scaled out to large proportions.  Solar farms would eat up massive quantities of land and wind turbines should not be placed close to homes dues to wind turbine syndrome.  Wind and solar are certainly useful but over reliance on them would create different sets of problems.

    By Ed Dodge on 2013 06 07

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  • The figures on gm-co2 per kwh for various countries are here (p.111)

    N.B. My article appeared on Business Spectator website ... but I don’t work for them.

    By Geoff Russell on 2013 06 07

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  • @JMcNeish Regarding waste disposal, this is included in the original calculation, but it is somewhat complicated. Finnish utilities, similar to the US, must pay into a nuclear waste fund which pays for waste handling and storage (also eventual decommisioning). Unlike the US, Finland is close to completing their geologica repository, which will make it the first country to have a central waste repository. As the spent fuel handling fee is the responsibility of the utility, we included it in the O&M costs of the plant (see the original analysis). This cost is a very small percentage of O&M costs as nuclear fuel is very dense, i.e. not very much fuel is used or waste is produced compared to how much power is produced.

    By Jessica on 2013 06 07

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  • Oops, the comment I just posted was for @james ... not by him!

    By Geoff Russell on 2013 06 07

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  • I’m sure the authors are sincere in their desire to see the world find the most practical solution for climate change. But they have something of a reputation for being contrarians who claim to see the light denied to mere mortals.

    This article doesn’t mention whether the calculations include the cost of waste disposal. It also omits to mention that Finland is the only country with a remotely plausible long-term waste disposal solution. It forgets that imposing the costs of nuclear waste management on future generations that did not vote for it is a massive example of intergenerational injustice.

    The authors also do not account for the massive social resistance, rational or not, to nuclear power. Like many technocrats, they forget that a judgment on what solutions are most practical must include not just the calculations of cost, but also an understanding of the social factors involved.

    By David Le Page on 2013 06 08

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  • Ted and Michael,

    Your economic claims are disingenuous.

    Nuclear power benefits from having taxpayers pick up all the cost of disposing of nuclear wastes that will remain highly toxic and radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Taxpayers also pick up all the costs of liabilities for potential accidents or for the spread of potential nuclear materials to terrorists.

    So if you want to do an economic comparison, lets compare costs after the nuclear industry pays directly for the cost of properly and permanently disposing of its own waste, like every other industry in America and lets repeal the Price Andersen Act and and make the industry pay its own liability insurance, like every other industry in America. Then compare the real costs. Unfortunately, no business would ever shoulder those huge costs or liabilities, and for very good reason. The nuclear industry is the most insane scam ever perpetrated.

    I really like a lot of what you guys write, but when you insist on shilling for the corrupt nuclear industry, you really diminish your personal credibility.

    By Fred Unger on 2013 06 08

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  • @Fred and @David, As Jessica Lovering (staff member) explained, the cost of both waste disposal and decomissioning are included in the cost calculation of the Finnish Plant. — Michael

    By Michael Shellenberger on 2013 06 08

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  • @Fred Unger : We covered these issues (waste, weapons, liability) in our Nuclear FAQs -

    The nuclear industry does pay for waste disposal through a fee on every kWh they produce as mandated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. With regards to liability, nuclear plant owners must buy the maximum amount of private liability insurance. Then, then also pay additional money into a fund mandated by the Price Anderson Act.

    Jessica Lovering
    Policy Analyst | The Breakthrough Institute
    Energy and Climate Program

    By Jessica Lovering on 2013 06 08

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  • Michael and Jessica,

    Your response regarding liability insurance really highlights the disingenuous nature of your entire argument.

    Nuclear plants get the maximum insurance they can get from private insurers, who recognize that the actual potential liabilities are far too high to consider insuring against. Then they pay a relatively small sum to the feds in return for a capped limit on their corporate liability.

    Compare the cost of doing business without Price Anderson to solar. Its impossible because no company in the world would take on the real liabilities of nuclear power without protection against the real liability. The fact that lobbyists have bought off enough politicians to saddle the taxpayers with all that risk does not make the risk less real. All it does is creates the hugest irrational economic subsidy the world has ever known.

    And your fundamental argument that proliferation of plutonium and nuclear waste is less dangerous than carbon dioxide is really a pretty huge leap beyond the most basic reality that anyone who has ever studied high school chemistry is pretty clear on.

    By Fred Unger on 2013 06 08

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  • Fred,

    Your repetitive use of the word disingenuous is ...disingenuous.

    You are conflating nuclear weapons with electricity generated by nuclear fission. This makes you a dupe of anti-nuclear energy propaganda. You do not need a nuclear power plant to make a nuclear weapon. Some nuclear power don’t have nuclear power plants.

    Consider actually reading the Price Anderson act:–Anderson_Nuclear_Industries_Indemnity_Act

    The airline industry lobbied for and recieved a limit on liability. Considering that airline accidents have killed far more people than nuclear accidents, wouldn’t your time be better spent in comment fields about airline safety?

    The nuclear industry is no more or less corrupt than any other industry, oil, coal, hydro, biofuels, solar, wind. Your skewed perspective appears to originate in large part from your simplistic world view of good and evil. Dams are destroying the amazon. Biofuels usurp cropland, destroy ecosystems, starve people. Wind farms are bird and bat blenders. Solar costs a fortune, which is why so few have it on their roof tops. Assuming that nuclear energy companies are less well behaved than any other energy company is naive in the extreme.

    The nuclear power industry has paid for all waste disposal with surcharges. U.S. citizens can thank anti-nuclear energy zealots for the fact that it is all still stored in power plant parking lots.


    By Russ Finley on 2013 06 09

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  • Russ,

    The name really says it all doesn’t it: “Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act.”

    Webster defines indemnify as “to secure against hurt, loss, or damage”

    As the wikipedia link you sent makes clear in the first paragraph:

    “The main purpose of the Act is to partially indemnify the nuclear industry against liability claims arising from nuclear incidents”.

    Does the natural gas industry need blanket indemnity from liability? How about the coal industry? What’s the real worst case of a solar energy accident or spill? All those industries pay their own insurance. You guys are making economic comparison arguments and leaving out huge cost factors for only one of the competing generation types. How is that a fair or remotely rational economic comparison? If you are comparing costs, you really have to include the total cost of insuring against the liabilities of each industry.

    The most massively subsidized industry in history is nowhere even close to ever becoming economically competitive. The reason nuclear power is so “low cost” today, besides the taxpayers continuing to pick up so much of their real cost of doing business, is that the original developers of nuke plants all either passed off all their outrageous cost overruns to ratepayers or went bankrupt and the plants were purchased for pennies on the dollar by current owners.

    Its amusing that all huge subsidies, bailouts and special deals are so acceptable for the corporate welfare queens of the nuclear industry and its bought and paid for propagandists, who at the same time rail against subsidies for safe clean energy resources.

    Try a different argument than economics or safety for nuclear power. Neither one of those arguments are remotely credible.

    Perhaps you should all move to Fukushima where you can bask in the real glow of nuclear energy. Or perhaps you should just get real. Nuclear power is dying. Good riddance.

    By Fred Unger on 2013 06 09

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  • I’m at a loss about how ignorant the anti-nuclear opposition is about the facts. They’re a broken record of wrong information. No matter how many times experts provide accurate data, they always ignore it.

    By HeatherB on 2013 06 10

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  • How is it even possible you put nuclear-industries-lobby publicity online? For the sake of 4 times cheaper? This calculation is not made only by hammer it also ignores huge advances in sustainable energy and the speed of improving on existing concepts.
    If at least you would help to explain the difference in nuclear science in order to educate from the destrcutive and explosive knowledge into fusion.

    Anyway you made your name now sell your support to the lobby, US-Can-France-Britain based and tell all people why electricty never was cheaper when delivered from a nuke plant. They made 4 times more profit and still doing it, but such little details are not welcome here.

    Thanks for publishing my reply.
    Horst G Ludwig
    Scientific Democracy

    By Horst G Ludwig on 2013 06 10

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  • It’s clear from the comments that people are totally unaware of the relative magnitudes of energy source “externalities”.

    As others have pointed out, nuclear fully pays for the disposal of its wastes, to a standard that is infinitely higher than that applied to any other waste stream.  Plant decommissioning costs are also fully covered, and included in the price.

    As for Price Anderson, and the cost of accidents, even nuclear opponents acknowledge that the magnitude of any subsidy provided by Price Anderson is on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr (see Wikipedia reference).  One can also estimate the “accident cost” of nuclear by doing the math themselves.  Fukushima, the only significant release in non-soviet nuclear’s entire 40+ year history, caused no deaths and had no measurable public health impact, but had an economic impact (cost) of ~$100 billion.  Dividing this sum by the ~100 trillion kW-hrs nuclear power has generated, thus far, you get an accident cost of ~0.1 cents/kW-hr (thus corroborating the above).

    Meanwhile, worldwide fossil-fueled power generation causes hundreds of thousands of deaths ANNUALLY (i.e., ~1000 deaths every single day).  It also causes several hundred billions of economic damage every single year.  And that’s before considering global warming.  To summarize, in terms of public health, fossil generation is more than equivalent to a Fukushima event occurring every single day.  In purely economic terms, it is as harmful as one Fukushima every few months.

    And yet, whereas the nuclear industry has to buy insurance to cover all small-to-medium events and at least part of the cost of a worst-case event, fossil generators do not have to pay anything at all in compensation for their horrendous health, environmental and economic impacts.  Thus, they don’t need insurance (I suppose).

    Talk about unpaid external costs!  There is no comparison.  In fact, studies (e.g., have estimated the external costs of fossil power generation to be almost 100 times those of nuclear.  Any external costs of nuclear are tiny compared to the free pollution subsidy enjoyed by fossil fuels, as well as the direct govt. subsidies (or outright mandates) enjoyed by renewables.  If all sources had to pay all external costs, and all subsidies were removed, nuclear would flourish.

    By JimHopf on 2013 06 10

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  • Some of the comments here, particularly from critics, treat “nuclear power” as if it were a single technology option. In fact there are multiple existing and potential versions of nuclear power technology that vary considerably in their safety, waste streams, efficiency, cost, scale, and other features.

    The light water technology that has dominated power plant design for decades is the outcome of a political initiative during the Eisenhower administration to scale up a system developed for military use and apply it to civilian power generation—a purpose for which it was never designed and for which it was less than ideal.

    More recent generations of nuclear power designs are better in many ways than earlier ones. But Ted and Mike rightly recognize the need for further innovation to make nuclear power safer, cleaner, and less costly.

    If there is a notable flaw in their argument, it is that by focusing on the relative merits of nuclear versus solar/wind power, they overlook the reality that natural gas costs significantly less than either. A key reason why nuclear plants are being retired rather than renovated and construction of new nuclear plants has stalled in the US is that it is much cheaper to build natural gas plants instead.

    By Lewis J. Perelman (@LewisJPerelman) on 2013 06 11

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  • @Perelman : It’s not just a question of cost. The regulatory environment is important too. In the case of SONGS for example, technically the utility could have plugged the broken tubes, and restarted the unit using the remaining tubes. Instead it was forced to shut it down for more than one year, with the perspective of having to wait one more year before it would be able to restart it, and actually not a real certitude there would not be another unexpected problem restraining them from restarting one year from now. And they had to pay the license as well as make many maintenance spendings whilst it was not running at the same cost as if it were.

    Wind interacting with gas also plays a role. During strong production peaks of wind, the value of power drops. A gas plant can handle that by just shutting down for a short while, and restarting when the price is back to a normal level. To be economic, the nuclear one needs to be producing constantly so is hurt a lot more than the gas plant by this. If those factors were not there, the price at which nuclear would be competitive against gas would be much lower..

    By jmdesp on 2013 06 11

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