Nuclear Climate Solution Is Cheaper Than Coal, IAEA Says

  • IAEA says nuclear beats coal thanks to lower interest rates
  • Critics say agency's model doesn't reflect market reality

The potential for nuclear power to play a role in the fight against climate change is growing as low interest rates make capital-intensive investments more attractive, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.

Assuming that investors would demand a return of between 3 percent and 7 percent for financing the construction of reactors, and fossil-fuel generators will have to pay $30 per ton for their carbon emissions, nuclear power is a cheaper option than coal and natural gas, the IAEA said in a report Tuesday. The agency, whose mission is to promote the use of atomic energy, had used discount rates of 5 percent to 10 percent last year for its calculations.

“The estimates are very sensitive to the discount rate assumed,” said Edwin Lyman at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, a policy group seeking tighter nuclear safety regulation. “In theory, expanding nuclear power is an option that could help to reduce carbon emissions but the problem is putting that theory into practice.”

The nuclear-power industry’s focus has shifted toward Asia as safety concerns and cost overruns have slowed construction in Europe and the U.S. The $37.9 billion Hinkley Point project, Britain’s first nuclear plant in three decades, is being challenged in court while China’s newest economic-development plan envisions as many as eight new nuclear plants a year through 2020.

To play a bigger role in efforts to restrict climate change, the industry would need “very high construction rates but also to maintain those rates over several decades,” David Shropshire, the IAEA’s head of planning and economic studies, wrote in an e-mailed reply to questions. “The challenge is also financial as very large resources would have to be mobilized to deploy nuclear plants worldwide.”

Shropshire said at a Vienna briefing on Tuesday that applying a 10 percent discount rate would also be “plausible” under some circumstances. A country’s decision to construct nuclear-power plants is more of a strategic than an economic decision, he added.

The IAEA’s assumptions mean that it would cost $26 to $64 to generate a megawatt hour of electricity using nuclear power, compared with $65 to $95 for coal and $61 to $133 for natural gas. Nuclear power is cheaper than renewable energies including onshore wind and solar, according to the Vienna-based agency, adding that only hydro-power costs less.

In the U.K., the owners of Hinkley Point are receiving a return of 10 percent after they worked out a 35-year deal with regulators to charge 92.50 pounds ($143.23) per megawatt-hour of nuclear power. A Bloomberg New Energy Finance study concluded a megawatt hour of atomic power costs $261 in the U.S. and $158 in Europe.

“It looks to me like they are stacking their economic assumptions against economic reality,” said Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington research group that looks at nuclear risks. Assumptions around carbon pricing are more than three times higher than actual market quotes, he said.

On Monday, benchmark carbon futures for December traded at 8.40 euros a metric ton on London’s ICE. December 2015 California carbon futures were at $12.88.

“I know of no serious justification for using a 3 percent discount rate given western experience,” wrote Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, in an e-mailed reply to questions. A more accurate measure would be the 5 percent to 10 percent used by the IAEA in previous years, he said.

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