State support for nuclear power in Canada and France: a tale of two countries

I recently visited the Flamanville nuclear generating station on the channel coast in Normandy, where the French electric utility, EDF, is building a new 1,650-megawatt EPR reactor. Two thousand seven hundred contractors, split into three shifts of 900 each, work around the clock six days a week to get the thing done. The locals in Normandy love it: those 2,700 contractors, all well paid, spend lots of money in the region. Watching this economic engine at work at Flamanville, I couldn’t help wondering how the people in Oshawa, Ontario feel about the non-action on the nuclear front in their own community.

The “process” to add 3,500 megawatts of new nuclear capacity at the Darlington station on Lake Ontario has seized up like a rusted bolt. The provincial government asked for bids from reactor vendors last year, but feels that the price tag on the only compliant one, the one from federally owned Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), is too high. The federal government won’t backstop cost overruns. So the planned construction site sits idle, and a couple thousand high-paid direct construction jobs remain unfilled. Unlike Flamanville.

And, unlike the French nuclear industry, the Canadian nuclear industry sits there wondering about its future. If AECL could close the sale of its new reactor, the ACR 1000, this would start a major construction project in the Oshawa area, pumping jobs and money into an area that needs both. It would also give the company—and Canada’s industry—a major shot in the arm as they pursued lucrative opportunities around the world.

This really is a tale of two countries. A few years ago, the Finnish utility TVO decided it needed a big new reactor, and launched a competitive bidding process to buy one. The French government decided that its nuclear company, Areva, had to win that competition. The prize was worth practically any cost, because the prize was having Areva’s new EPR, its new generation reactor, in service before any of Areva’s competitors.

That in-service mark is huge: it tells other prospective customers that the machine is the real McCoy. Since there are really not that many other prospective buyers, and since the sale of just one reactor means billions in revenue to the vendor, the vote of confidence is absolutely critical. Hence France’s determination to get the Finnish sale.

Areva won the sale, at what some critics said at the time were unfavourable terms. Critics pointed out that any delays or cost overruns would be hyper-scrutinized. They were right. Every delay has indeed been accompanied by copious media commentary. Every anti-nuclear activist has said it’s déjà-vu all over again. Every oil industry suck-up said this proves once again that nuclear is too expensive. But Areva stuck to its guns.

And it paid off. Soon after the Finnish sale, Areva scored another one in its own backyard (the Flamanville project). Then China announced it would buy two EPRs. I saw the 500-ton Flamanville reactor vessel, and several other components of the Chinese reactors, at Areva’s heavy components plant in Dijon, which I visited the other day. Business is booming in that plant. Lots of high-paid workers were going about their business; at the end of their shift, they would drive back home and spend money in their local community.

What produced this activity and success? The steady determination of the French government to support its nuclear industry. The French are not shy or discreet about supporting Areva. They are up front about it. That confidence rubs off.

The situation in Canada is nowhere near that. But the good news is we’re not that far away from it. All it takes is for the federal and provincial governments to sit down and work something out.

I have suggested in other posts exactly how this could happen. I’ll elaborate in upcoming posts. Stay tuned.

9 comments for “State support for nuclear power in Canada and France: a tale of two countries

  1. June 26, 2010 at 14:23

    Funny that words and phrases like “value” and “wealth creation” (or “wealth destruction”) don’t show up in this blog, Steve! But “success” does appear — and means getting something happening, whether it ends up creating wealth or destroying it!

    Energy Probe and I have been principled enough to oppose crazy uneconomical subsidies for our favourite technologies — like Ontario’s crazy FITs for solar and wind and co-gen. Care to join us — or do you really think it doesn’t matter how much it costs to create a dead-end job, even in an unviable industry like Areva’s?

  2. June 26, 2010 at 15:50

    Norm, thanks very much for your comment. I’d be happy to join your efforts to oppose hare-brained schemes like the FITs for wind/solar/co-gen. I totally agree with you on that—they are a delusional waste of money. I’m glad, and not surprised, you see through the nonsense underpinning that.

    Now, having thrown out the bathwater it’s time to throw out the baby too. Most anti-nuke arguments are based on these fantasies about wind/solar. If you agree the FITs are a waste of money because they support technologies that produce minuscule amounts of unreliable power at high prices, then I don’t see how you can tar nuclear with the same brush. It produces huge amounts of reliable, low-cost power.

    As I write this, the three small nuclear plants in Ontario are providing more than half the 18,249 megawatts the whole system is producing.

    And how can you say nuclear jobs are dead-end jobs? There are thousands of people working in nuclear plants in Ontario, earning good salaries!

  3. June 28, 2010 at 14:09

    Steve, if your lights or computer went down every time the nukes broke our hearts in Ontario, you’d have trouble maintaining your blog. The Candu’s 70-ish percent lifetime capacity factors don’t indicate reliability, any more than our wind-farms’ 30% capacity factors mean we’re 30% certain of having their power when we need it most. In both cases, they break down when they choose, and they’re very likely to be generating at high power when we need the power LEAST, which is a grid-stability hazard as well as an economic loss.

    Without guaranteed purchases and guaranteed above-market prices, both industries would look very different, if they existed at all. Heck, just without government subsidies and liability limitation (a concept that REALLY smells like a fish since the Gulf oil blowout!), your beloved nuclear industry would vanish.

    Opposing FITs for wind and solar because they’re a waste of money, while supporting heroic subsidies to hare-brained nuclear schemes that are very likely to become losers like Pickering, Darlington, Pt. Lepreau refurb, etc., etc., is intellectually inconsistent, to be gentle! The fact that some of my pro-renewables colleagues are also intellectually inconsistent in the exact opposite direction, does not excuse the inconsistency.

  4. June 28, 2010 at 15:08

    Norm, that’s just the difference: nukes break our hearts when one or two come offline after having been online and running at capacity for months at a time. Ontario’s system is based on nuclear and my blog has never gone down, except when the (Vancouver-based) server is undergoing maintenance. The Ontario nuclear fleet is pretty consistent in providing around half Ontario’s electricity. That means it’s reliable.

    As for nuclear plants generating most when we need them least, what is that based on? Their output curve is flat!

    FITs for wind/solar are hare-brained because they are always inherently unreliable—as you point out, an estimated 30 percent CF, while statistically indicating they will probably be available 30 percent of the time, means little in practical terms. Especially if you’e the system operator and it’s three p.m. on a hot Wednesday.

    But I should be clear: the FIT is not what amazes me. The actual amounts of power are so small that even the high price won’t make much of a difference. But as you know, at the high level wind/solar are a PR ploy, a Trojan Horse for natural gas. All the noise about Ontario power being too cheap (a charge leveled most often by anti-nukes who also say nuclear is too expensive—!) is preparation for the rate hikes that will come when the price of gas goes back up, because gas is now the price-setting fuel in Ontario.

    So Ontarians will be paying high rates to cover the FIT for renewables, and high rates for the gas-fired “backup”—and gas dumps half a kilogram of CO2 into the air for every kWh generated.

    Why go that route when we could get zero-carbon nuclear power for a lower price?

  5. July 1, 2010 at 12:52

    Steve your “As for nuclear plants generating most when we need them least, what is that based on? Their output curve is flat!” is misquoting me badly. Our input is NOT “flat”, so nuclear’s flat output curve is a strain on the system. And multi-year outages are, too. Nuclear doesn’t have wind’s short-term intermittency, but wind doesn’t have nuclear’s multi-year unreliability. Either way, the System Operators have nightmares, they’re just different. Get rid of coal as a reliable backup, and the nightmares get much worse. (Gas turbines are much worse for wind and nukes than coal!)

    Saying that “The Ontario nuclear fleet is pretty consistent in providing around half Ontario’s electricity. That means it’s reliable.” is really an insult to your IQ, Steve. My bicycle is pretty consistent in providing around half of my transportation. That does NOT mean it’s reliable, except on nice days, for short trips, when I’m not carrying anything heavy, and I feel like it. The rest of the time, filling in the DIFFICULT half, is public transit and my car. Without that other half, the RELIABLE and dispatchable half (which happily sits idle while I bicycle), the whole system falls apart, and the bike is revealed as the nice-but-unreliable “fuel-saver” that it really is. High capacity factor, but low reliability, and virtually no flexibility. Sound like nukes and wind to you? It does to me.

    Wind farms at 30% have much higher capacity factor than many coal plants that are way MORE reliable and way more important for the security of our electricity supply. You understand that, but you don’t seem to understand that it applies equally to 75% CF nukes. (Thank God I don’t have any blind spots!)

  6. July 1, 2010 at 12:53

    BTW, solar in Ontario can be dismissed as trivially tiny. Wind can’t.

  7. July 5, 2010 at 17:39

    Norm, I’m with you on coal 100 percent. I see it as perfectly symbiotic with nuclear. You probably know as well as anybody that the only reason coal became a clean air issue is because the Pickering/Bruce units were laid up in the mid-90s, and there were 7,000 MW of coal capacity sitting there, available. Had coal not been there, “they” would have started refurbing the CANDUs then, instead of waiting until 2004.

    I cannot see how an energy source that provides more than half Ontario’s power in any average year is unreliable. Your bicycle analogy doesn’t even come close to being applicable. If your bicycle were capable of shipping tons of freight, and in fact moved most of the province’s freight, then okay. But your bicycle is more comparable to wind/solar. Nuclear is comparable to your car and public transit—it does most of the heavy lifting, day in and day out, year in year out.

    And yes, wind with its average CF of 30 percent might be higher than some coal units’ CF, but you know what the difference is. When you need coal-fired power, you power up the generators. When you need wind, you cross your fingers and hope it blows when you need the power. The coal units with the lower CF were simply deployed less by the IESO; it wasn’t like the IESO needed them and they weren’t there.

    However it shakes out, there’s no way that you can rhetorically change the physical picture. Wind provides small scale unreliable power, nuclear provides large scale baseload. Wind’s inherent unreliability is why it was dropped in the 1800s as a global shipping fuel, after having been the incumbent fuel for thousands of years.

  8. Tesla
    March 28, 2011 at 14:27

    Very interesting discussion here…just have a few questions:

    1- Is it just me, or do we have some hidden implemented system in Ontario that would be able to promptly replace the nuclear reactors? McGuinty spent a hefty sum on a solar/wind project to an offshore company…and no one has ever heard any developments with that…thought that was interesting!

    2 – Why are people under the impression that Ontario’s economy and specifically INDUSTRY can be supported with a bunch of wind turbines? 🙂 It not only seems ludicrous, it is plain funny…maybe we want to end up buying energy from our neighbors to the south?

    3 – Stats show that for every person killed due to nuclear power generation 4,000 die because of coal and about 1,000 die because of oil; actually the death rate of nuclear is lower than both solar (roof top) and wind; what do you guys think about this?

    Cheers!

    PS – here is the source: http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

    • Steve Aplin
      March 28, 2011 at 14:39

      Tesla:

      1. Yes, there is a system that could promptly stand in for a big part of our nuclear capacity, and that is the coal plants. Nanticoke and Lambton together have nearly 5,000 megawatts. They are perfectly operational, and will be “not available” after 2014 only because of politics.

      2. Why are Ontarians under the impression our economy and industry can run on wind power? Because the mainstream “environment” lobby, working with the natural gas lobby, have been telling us this for ten years. Repeat a factoid often enough, through a compliant media, and people will start believing it is a fact.

      3. Nuclear death rate is not only “lower,” it is BY FAR the lowest. The civilian nuclear industry in the OECD has two fatalities in its entire history. It is by every measure the safest way to generate electricity.

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