A Nuclear Critic Draws a Lesson from France’s Success – NYTimes.com





The true costs of France’s nuclear power buildout have been something of a mystery. A new statistical analysis of an almost-secret topic — what it costs to build nuclear reactors in France — may have some lessons for a “nuclear renaissance” in the United States.

France, nuclear advocates often point out, gets about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, or roughly quadruple the proportion that this country does.

Between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, the country built 58 nuclear reactors. (The United Sates has 104 now running but has a much larger electric system.)

Whether the United States should follow the French example is not clear. The United States has domestic alternatives that France never had, including native coal and natural gas. When France went on its construction campaign, the idea was to displace petroleum imported from the Middle East.

But France has something that the American industry would like to emulate: a small number of standardized nuclear power plant designs. This makes it easier to manufacture components, build plants, exchange operators among plants and analyze safety problems. French reactors are almost all of three designs, while the United States has dozens. Sometimes two reactors on the same site are so different that operators can be licensed for only one or the other.

France, of course, built its reactors as matter of national policy, without regard to competition in the electric field; in the United States, most were built by private companies that worried about cost.

And it is hard to say how successful the French were. The French national utility, Électricité de France, has never been open about what the plants cost to build.

But a researcher at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna analyzed a 2000 report that included the French utility’s year-by-year expenses and correlated this to construction schedules. He concluded that construction cost at the end of the period was about 3.5 times higher than at the beginning, per unit of generating capacity.

That caught the attention of Charles Komanoff, an energy analyst based in New York who began analyzing American power plant costs in the 1970s and is the author of a 1981 book comparing nuclear and coal plants of that era.

Mr. Komanoff re-analyzed the data, concentrating not only on the beginning and the end, but also the middle. He found that while costs rose over the period – he put it at 60 percent – they also fell for certain classes of reactors. Specifically, he said, every time the number of new construction projects doubled in a year, the prices fell by 5.7 percent.

One lesson, he said, was that “building more plants in a short period of time creates a potential to reduce or at least control costs.’’

His findings echo what American utilities say, that building a “first-of-a-kind” plant is expensive and later units are cheaper. But for Mr. Komanoff to reach a similar conclusion is significant, because he was a sharp critic of the industry in the construction boom of the 1980s and is no fan of nuclear power now.

“I think the world is too much interested in the nuclear power debate,’’ he said. Putting a tax on carbon emissions, which might also spur nuclear construction, would be a smarter overall strategy than specifying nuclear plants, he said.


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