Monday, April 14, 2014

The Truth About Nuclear Power - Part Eleven

Subtitle: Following France in Nuclear is Not the Way to Go

Update 4/15/14:  included comparison of France electricity prices to US prices; included another reference for the EU Commission investigation of low power prices in France. -- Roger

To summarize the first ten articles, it has been shown (one) that modern nuclear power plants are uneconomic to operate compared to natural gas and wind energy, (two) they produce preposterous pricing if they are the sole power source for a grid, (three) cost far too much to construct, (four) use far more water for cooling than better alternatives, (five) nuclear fuel makes them difficult to shut down and requires very costly safeguards, (six) are built to huge scale of
Nuclear Plants in France
source: Wikicommons
1,000 to 1,600 MWe or greater to attempt to reduce costs via economy of scale, (seven) an all-nuclear grid will lose customers to self-generation, (eight) smaller and modular nuclear plants have no benefits, (nine) large-scale plants have very long construction schedules even without lawsuits that delay construction, and (ten) nuclear plants require costly upgrades after 20 to 30 years that do not always perform as designed.

This article, number eleven in the series, discusses a favorite topic of the nuclear proponents, France and their nuclear power plants.  France, they say, has cheap electricity and obtains 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power plants.  France, they say, actually exports power to other countries.   They say these as if those are good things.  The reality is quite different. 

Nationalized Electric Industry

Just after World War II, France nationalized the electric utility industry.  Until very recently, EDF, the French utility, was government-owned.  It is now a combination of private and government ownership.  see link to EDF website for the company history.   When a country nationalizes an industry, the government has no obligation to pay for the assets, or if it does pay, to pay fair market value.  The country also can, and often does, subsidize the construction of new assets such as nuclear power plants.  This leads to the second point.

Subsidized Power Pricing

France could, and did, set power prices at the point it chose, without any requirement to pay for assets, loans, bonds, or any other fixed costs.  French power pricing reflects the ongoing cost of operation such as fuel, labor, and maintenance.  In effect, the nationalized industry allowed France to subsidize the electric prices, which subsidizing did happen.  see link

There is also the matter of tarTAM,  a subsidized rate for large and medium-sized customers.  This is to be eliminated in 2015, but has been in effect for years.   

French subsidized prices were Investigated for anti-trust by the EU.  (see previous link) 

When one is not required to pay for the capital cost of assets, or can bury the costs within the labyrinth of government coffers, it is easy to charge below-market electricity prices. 

Update 4/15/14:  The EU Commission's report of 2007 of their investigation into power pricing in France concluded: "The Commission has assessed the aid element in the two regulated tariff systems as applied to non-household consumers. It found that these regulated tariffs were financed at least in part through state resources. It also concluded that, as far as the ‘yellow’ and ‘green’ options were concerned, the tariffs conferred a selective benefit on certain non-household consumers and that they affected trade between Member States."  (emphasis added)   source: see link.

In addition, The 2013 prices for electricity in France and the US were, per the IEA 2013 Key World Energy Statistics, slide 43  (see link) :  France industrial power price, 11.6 cents per kWh compared to US at 6.7 cents, and residential price at 17.5 cents per kWh compared to US at 11.9 cents per kWh.   This shows that France, with almost a full nuclear-powered grid, charges approximately double for industrial power (11.6 vs 6.7), and approximately 50 percent more for residential prices (17.5 vs 11.9).   French prices would surely be much higher, if France did not export power but had to throttle back each night, and if subsidies were fully forbidden.   -- End update --  Roger

Export Electricity 

France does indeed export electricity, but it is necessary to investigate to see why this is.  EDF exports power, mainly at night to neighboring countries, to increase production rate and avoid load reductions in the nuclear plants.  This is the problem as described in Part Two of the Series, that being nuclear plants are very difficult to operate and load changing is difficult and dangerous.  

Night exporting to neighboring countries acts the same as wind energy in the US, it forces load-following plants in the neighbor countries to reduce load or go off-line.   Thus, France is benefiting while neighbors take the burden of part-load, unloaded plants, and increased maintenance from severe load swings.   It is little wonder that the EU investigated. 

Subsidized Exported Plant Technology

France is desperate to sell nuclear power plants, and subsidizes the plant costs to be built in other countries (e.g. India).    France wanted 16 cents per kWh for the power sales price, but India negotiated it down to 10 cents.  Per a recent article (see link), "The two sides (India and Areva) have agreed on Rs 6 per unit, down from Rs 9.18 per unit quoted by the French company Areva initially, which was not acceptable to India."

In addition, France agreed to a very low loan interest rate to sweeten the deal: "France has also decided to provide India a loan for the project at 4.8 per cent interest rate for 25 years"  (same source from just above).  

No Other Countries Follow France
World Electricity Production in 2011
source: IEA Outlook 2013, slide 24

If the French model on nuclear was any good, why has no other country in the world adopted 80 percent power from nuclear?   No country follows France, with Ukraine next at only 46 percent, and South Korea at 29 percent of domestic electricity produced by nuclear power. (slide 17 from IEA see link).   In fact, world-wide, nuclear power produces just 11.7 percent of all electricity (2011 IEA above, slide 24).   If nuclear power was truly a better technology, one would expect that the past 50 years would have observed country after country abandoning coal and natural gas and building nothing but nuclear power plants.  Clearly, with only 11 percent or a bit more in world electricity share after 50 years, nuclear power is not the best choice.  


After the worldwide increases in crude oil price in the 1970s, France chose nuclear power rather than high-priced imported oil or relying on other countries for natural gas.  France has, in the intervening years, subsidized its power prices, reluctantly privatized a portion of the electric industry, developed nuclear technology that it desperately subsidizes to sell to other countries, exports low-balled subsidized power to neighboring countries in an attempt to maintain high nuclear plant operating rates, and recently was the object of an investigation for anti-trust by the EU related to power prices.  Clearly, following France in nuclear is not the way to go.

Previous articles in the Truth About Nuclear Power series are found at the following links.  Additional articles will be linked as they are published. 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California

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