Iran and the Nuclear Eventide Home Tour

Some of you asked for something completely different.

Iran proudly switched on its first civilian nuclear reactor at Busheyr in 2011. It justifies its nuclear enrichment programme as needed for the development of civilian nuclear power. The USA, Israel, Europe and the IAEA do not believe this. Iran has turned down offers from Europe and Russia to guarantee supplies of reactor fuel and in 2010 announced it had achieved enrichment up to 20%, allegedly for a special reactor to manufacture medical radioisotopes, but well above the typical 2-3% enrichment of power reactor fuel. To the outside world, the objective of Iran’s enrichment programme must plainly be to allow to build atomic weapons if it chooses. I’ll go along with the CW.

But that’s not how the Iranian public sees it. According to Wikipedia:

Interviews and surveys show that the majority of Iranians in all groups favor their country’s nuclear program. Polls in 2008 showed that the vast majority of Iranians want their country to develop nuclear energy, and 90% of Iranians believe it is important (including 81% very important) for Iran “to have a full fuel cycle nuclear program.”

Polls on nuclear weapons give more mixed signals. Remember that officially, for both domestic and foreign consumption, the government claims not to be developing them. So a very large number of Iranians believe their government’s story that the enrichment is to develop civilian nuclear power. Their opinions matter in this strange constitutional theocracy: Ahmadinejad was re-elected President in 2009, with plenty of irregularities but a convincingly large majority. Iran is far from North Korea.

It’s time to open Iranian eyes to the hopelessly geriatric state of nuclear power in the world.
One, the economics of nuclear power have steadily been getting worse. Reactor construction costs keep going up, not down. This partly because construction times have lengthened. From the well-informed anti-nuclear World Nuclear Report [Update 13/8: by email, the organisation disputes the characterisation “anti-nuclear”, claiming its aim is to provide objective data. So it was my read of the data.]

Worldwide, it took an average of 13.8 years to build the seven units started up in 2011 and 9.5 years for the five reactors that began operating in 2010.

Meanwhile, both fossil energy (combined-cycle gas turbines) and renewables have been making giant strides in cutting costs, making the economic and environmental case for nuclear power hopeless. (There only remains the thin environmental argument that you need some zero-carbon reserve capacity to cover the intermittency of massive amounts of wind and solar. However, the technical alternatives are coming along nicely - hot salt and compressed air storage, and geothermal -, with negligible risks.)

Two, the safety issues have not been solved. Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) were exceptional events, but they were also very serious, and each left deep scars on the population and on élites. Any policymaker responsible for building a nuclear reactor is putting his career on the line. Add that public opposition has largely prevented long-term solutions to high-level waste disposal. In the US, this has meant leaving most of it on the surface in cooling ponds near reactors, about the riskiest system imaginable short of tipping it into the nearest river.

The result of these two factors can be seen in the ageing reactor park. A chart of power reactor starts, also from World Nuclear Report:

The peak year for reactor construction starts was 1978, 34 years ago. The mean age of operating reactors is 27 years (ibid, Figure 6). They have a 40-year design life, but that doesn’t mean much. With old equipment, what usually happens is that the inspections and refits get more frequent and expensive, until they are no longer worth it and the machine is scrapped. The industry is extending the lives of reactors, but the same logic applies. An increasing number of old reactors reach the end of their economic life every year. As a result, since 2000 the industry has globally been switching off more reactors than it has switched on, and net operating capacity has plateaued (ibid, Figure 3). Its demography is that of Italy not Iran.

What are the prospects of a “nuclear renaissance”? The mini-boom that started around 2006 was stopped in its tracks by Fukushima. No new reactor has been started since. Even China froze all its reactor construction sites for a safety review that lasted 15 months, which looks the real thing not cosmetic.

The corporate lobby for the industry is shrinking too. ABB was the first of the industrial heavyweights to head for the door in 2000. Following the German govenment’s decision to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power, Siemens quit the nuclear business last year. GE has put its nuclear interests into a joint venture with Hitachi - quite unlike its booming wind business. Toshiba took over the Westinghouse nuclear business in 2005 from its British owner BNFL. The French Areva soldiers on - but is developing an insurance sideline in concentrating solar power. So there are now just three power reactor design teams in the OECD: two Japanese and one French, based in countries where political support for nuclear power is ebbing.

Nuclear boosters have to rely on India and China. China has resumed work on its 15 reactors under construction, but the tea-leaves do not suggest a rosy future. Significantly, no new nuclear development plan has been released. There seems to have been a struggle within the oligarchy (with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on the pro-nuclear, anti-renewables side - odd for a geophysicist), but targets for solar and wind get revised upwards, not for nuclear. The current targets (government page in Chinese, readable with Google Translate), are for 100 GW of wind capacity by 2016, 200 GW by 2020; 21 GW of solar by 2015, 50 GW by 2020; biomass 13 GW by 2015, 30 GW by 2020. For nuclear, the target is 40GW by 2015 - i.e. completing all the current reactors under construction. For 2020, the only target is 1GW of advanced capacity, that is one Chinese-designed reactor (the current designs have so much foreign IP they can’t be exported) .

I read this as saying the Chinese nuclear industry has been put on notice. If they screw up on the current construction, then they are chop suey. And they probably will, going by international experience. The safety regulators almost certainly have the upper hand and will not allow short cuts - a Chinese Fukushima would threaten the régime. Meanwhile, the Chinese solar and wind industries seem quite capable of rolling out any target you like: it’s just mass production of straightforward devices, with at worst constant returns to scale.

I haven’t dug into India, but in a democracy the political pressures for quick results after the recent giant power cut affecting 600 million Indians work even more strongly against nuclear reactors. India has 7 under construction; I bet this won’t increase, not with wind and solar entrepreneurs credibly promising capacity in months, not years (see this video of a turbine being erected in four days, and this record for solar). Solar microgrids also fit perfectly into a Gandhian story of village self sufficiency.

My idea? A group of post- and non-nuclear countries should arrange for Iranian journalists a nice free study tour of the worldwide nuclear eventide home. By post-nuclear, I mean countries that have firmly decided to phase out nuclear power and not replace existing plants when they are shut down: Belgium, Germany, Spain, Switzerland. Non-nuclear are those that have closed down all their reactors, or have a firm policy not to start: Australia, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Malaysia, Norway and others.

The junket should take in:

If this is propaganda, it’s still fair. I don’t mind if the journalists are also exposed to the tired jam-tomorrow hype of the elderly flacks for the nuclear industry. I reckon they are quite bright enough to draw the conclusion that nuclear power is about as modern as steam locomotives, jukeboxes, tailfins on cars, and Elvis Presley; and to start doubting their government’s line on uranium enrichment.

Icon for the nuclear generation

The junket should throw in a renewables tour. Iran is a large country, with sunny deserts for solar and wind, high mountains for hydro, tectonic zones for geothermal, and a reasonably educated workforce quite capable of deploying renewable energy sources on a large scale. It already has almost as much renewable capacity installed as Britain (mostly hydro). All it needs is for the green transition to catch the public imagination.
[Update: commenter DCA adds that windmills were apparently invented in 9th-century Persia, so they should have patriotic appeal.]


  1. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    I am an old ex-nuclear advocate who never thought that he would view any anti-nuclear screed as too fair to nukes. But I think that James is being a bit too fair to nukes. There is no reason why we can’t burn carbon to provide reserve capacity against intermittent solar and wind, even if the energy storage options don’t work out. There is nothing wrong with small carbon releases: the poison is in the dose.

    I was strongly pro-nuclear as recently as three years ago. Fukushima alone would not have changed my mind. The kicker was the rapidly increasing economic practicability of solar and wind. This destroyed what I had believed to be the compelling argument for nukes: as the only feasible scalable middle-term non-carbon option.

    • Katja says

      The modern argument against nuclear energy does indeed appear to be an economic one: Cheap, safe, reprocessable: pick any two.

      True, you could probably solve the problem (at least in part) by throwing enough research money at it. But the same also holds for renewable energy.

      If there’s an argument against renewable energy, it is probably that renewable energy has a low Watt/square meter ratio compared to nuclear energy. For most forms of renewable energy, you need to use a significant fraction of a European country’s surface area to produce sufficient energy — at least compared to nuclear power (this is less of a problem on less densely populated continents).

      • Ebenezer Scrooge says

        Of course, Katja is correct on her facts: Europe has very little unused surface area, and very many people. But it devotes an inordinate amount of its surface area (not to mention EU budget!) to agriculture, especially for crops that can be grown more efficiently elsewhere. One might view repurposing European agricultural land as a feature, rather than a bug. But then again, I don’t speak French.

      • says

        DESERTEC have a nice map suggesting you could meet the whole world’s current electricity demand from 10,000 thousand square kilometres or so of the Sahara. You need to produce some numbers to show that land use for renewables is a real constraint in Europe. Bear in mind that wind farms take very little land at ground level, and the cows don’t seem to mind; and that every urban roof and car park is available for solar panels with no change in land use. In hot countries, the partial shade offered by solar collectors (CSP or PV) in fields may a priori even be a plus for agriculture and livestock.

        • Katja says

          I didn’t mean to imply that it would be an unsurmountable problem, just a problem that needs to be solved (which may even just mean that the trade-off of using a lot of a country’s land mass vs. the long term effects of climate change makes the former much preferable). I’m speaking here as an engineer, not as an advocate.

          If you want to see some numbers, David MacKay’s TED talk has some; his book has more. (Yes, I know that some of these numbers are debatable and have been questioned.)

          Obviously, yes, you can generate tons of solar energy in the Sahara during daytime. That energy still needs to be transported and stored. It’s not quite that easy. I would personally love if that became viable, if only because of the economic shot in the arm that Africa would get out of it.

    • Joseph A. Martin says

      I was never an advocate but rather a fence-sitter. If you’re in the engineering business, you naturally believe that engineering problems can be solved. Also if you’re in the engineering business, you eventually learn that the bottom-line guys may not care enough.

      From these perspectives, it turns out that nuclear power is economically a worst case scenario. The externalities, accidents and waste disposal, aren’t amenable to conventional market constraints. No one would insure a power plant for the full damage it could do at a price that would allow the plant to operate. Instead we have legislated caps on liability. With regard to waste disposal we are beset both by NIMBYism and by the fact that quarterly-oriented businesses aren’t interested in dealing with 10,000 year problems.

    • says

      “There is nothing wrong with small carbon releases: the poison is in the dose.”

      That might have been okay 30 years ago or even today, but we’ve spewed too much poison and will spew far too much more under any likely scenario for the next 40 years. A solution requires virtually no CO2 releases after 2050 and net negative carbon inputs through biochar, changed soil management, biomass plus carbon sequestration, and possibly limited oceanic iron fertilization.

      Nuclear’s problem is cost, but for existing facilities, most of that’s sunk. I favor continuation but not expansion.

      • Byomtov says

        But part of the cost is the accident risk. That’s decidedly not sunk. Some estimates have the Fukushima disaster costing in the vicinity of $250 billion, and I’m not sure that accounts for deaths. Nor, of course, do I know how big the risks are, but as plants get older surely the probabilities rise.

        • says

          Good point. Price-Anderson liability limitations in the US should be eliminated for new plants and gradually phased out for existing ones. If they can’t compete economically then, so be it.

  2. DCA says

    There is also a patriotic appeal to wind energy; the historical record, AFAIK, is that the windmill was a Persian invention.

    • James Wimberley says

      Wikipedia supports your claim. Not only is the invention Persian, it’s 9th-century, so presumably Shia Muslim Persian.
      These windmills had a horizontal axis, which saves on gearing and transmission, and avoids the need for gadgetry to orient the rotor, but has two disadvantages: the stresses on the blades are uneven, and the whole thing is less powerful for a given height as wind speed falls off dramatically near the ground or sea. So horizontal-axis windmills have dominated in recent centuries. However, the vertical axis still attracts serious researchers.

  3. hass says

    Umm…this article is baloney from the first sentence. Iran was forced to enrich uranium to 20% when the US interferred from Iran’s regular purchase of fuel for a reactor that in fact does make isotopes for the treatment of cancer victims. Iran has since repeatedly offered to cease 20% enrichment if the US only stops the interferrence (which cannot be justified as a non-proliferation measure, since the reactor in question is 100% monitored by the IAEA, and is far too small to even theoretically be used to make bombs.) Furthermore Iran just recently converted 1/3 of its stock of 20% enriched uranium into fuel rods so it can’t be used to make bombs (not something a bomb-crazed country would do.)

    The demand that Iran abandon a sovereign right to make its own reactor fuel is not only in violation of Iran’s sovereign rights recognized by the NPT, but is something no country would be willing to do. Even Cheney accused Russia of practicing energy blackmail and yet Iran is supposed to become totally reliant on them for the fuel for their reactors as the oil is running out? Nonsense!

    • James Wimberley says

      The argument is not that Iran is violating the NPT, which foolishly does recognise the signatories’ right to make their own nuclear fuel. It’s that it doesn’t make economic sense to do so, even if you do build nuclear power plants. Far from your assertion that “no country would be willing to” forgo enrichment, the great majority of the countries that have built power reactors in fact import fuel. Building your own enrichment plant is a colossal waste of money and talent. The alleged risk it guards against is tiny. Cutting off a supply of fuel rods is an extraordinarily weak threat, of the same order of effectiveness as stopping the supply of aircraft parts. Iran could perfectly well import the small amount of 20% enriched uranium needed to fuel its radioisotope reactor.

      • James Wimberley says

        PS: if your account of US policy on the medical reactor is correct, it’s an own goal.

      • Jamie says

        From a geopolitical IR standpoint, I’m not sure that is correct. On the time-scales we are talking about, if you were responsible for making a positive return on a reactor in Iran, would you trust that imports would be available, given the current international political climate?

        • James Wimberley says

          A chicken and egg problem. Iran can indeed foresee problems importing reactor fuel because nobody trusts its enrichment plans. The problem doesn’t worry South Korea or Sweden.