Author of controversial memo puts the final nail in the coffin: Nuclear power in Denmark is not cost-effective

14. marts kl. 16:07
Author of controversial memo puts the final nail in the coffin: Nuclear power in Denmark is not cost-effective
The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong, China. Illustration: EDF Energy.
Even with district heating generation and a higher capacity factor, nuclear power in Denmark is still too expensive, according to calculations by an associate professor in energy planning at Aalborg University.
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Nuclear power in Denmark makes no sense, asserts Jakob Zinck Thellufsen, associate professor in energy planning at Aalborg University, during a presentation at the IDA trade union.

The controversial energy technology can neither help us achieve the climate goal for 2030 nor pay for itself compared to wind and solar energy, even if the nuclear power plants run almost continuously and generate district heating as a side benefit.

Jakob Zinck Thellufsen is the main author of the memo “Facts about nuclear power: Input for a fact-based discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power as part of the green transition in Denmark”.

The memo was published in October last year and brought a lot of criticism.

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The criticism is directed at, among other things, the assumptions about how big of a role nuclear power would play, the cost and construction time of reactors, and the fact that the memo does not look at the possibilities for an energy system with small modular reactors, also known as SMRs.

The criticism has been heard.

Jakob Zinck Thellufsen has recalculated the scenarios for nuclear power in Denmark in the second version of the memo, which is currently being finalized, but which he partially revealed during the presentation.

In connection with the first version of the memo, Head of Section at DTU Physics Bent Lauritzen criticised, among other things, the fact that nuclear power in Denmark is assigned a capacity factor of 75 percent and not the 85 percent that the International Energy Agency, IEA, normally expects.

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Therefore, for the new version of the memo, Jakob Zinck Thellufsen has also calculated a scenario for nuclear power in Denmark with a capacity factor of 85 percent.

Overall, however, this does not change the conclusion—even if nuclear power runs most of the time as baseload and also supplies district heating during winter, which provides some economic advantages.

“We need a lot of CO2-neutral electricity in the future. I don’t think anyone doubts that. Renewable energy and nuclear power can both supply and balance the energy system, but with the prerequisites and costs we have in Europe and Denmark at the present time, it is more expensive to do it with nuclear power than with renewable energy,” Jakob Zinck Thellufsen said during his presentation.

Cheapest to go “all-in” on nuclear power

One of the points of criticism in the first version of the memo is that a 1,000 MW nuclear power plant is expected, which is part of a system consisting primarily renewable energy and must therefore regulate its production depending on the renewable energy.

Therefore, Jakob Zinck Thellufsen has now calculated the consequences of Denmark completely stopping expanding its wind and solar power capacity.

“The cheapest solution for nuclear power is to go all in on it in a sense,” he says, and explains how the energy system would look like in that case, and what it would cost in comparison with an energy system dominated by wind and solar power.

This “all-in” scenario is calculated based on the approximately 2,300 MW offshore wind, 4,700 MW onshore wind, and 2,000 MW solar panel capacity, which were available in 2020.

In that scenario, nuclear power must first be expanded to a capacity around 7,400 MW or 8,000 MW, depending on whether nuclear power is also to replace gas turbines for peak load purposes.

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“We get a lot of nuclear power, but the costs (for the energy system, ed.) increase by around DKK 9 billion per year (compared to an energy system without nuclear power, dominated by wind and solar power, ed.) in the most efficient scenario ,” Jakob Zinck Thellufsen says.

The costs of such a system are around 33 percent higher than the system based on wind and solar power (and without nuclear power).

Illustration: Jakob Zinck Thellufsen / Aalborg Universitet.

In addition, he has used a lower nuclear power cost per MW compared to the one in the previous memo.

Even if the construction costs are reduced to EUR 4.5 million per MW, the costs of a nuclear power-dominated energy system will be about 5 billion higher than of an energy system dominated by wind and solar power.

“If we have to get down to the same level of costs, we have to be under EUR 2 million per MW for nuclear power,” he says.

This corresponds to less than half of what nuclear power in Europe will cost in 2050 according to the IEA.

Long construction time

In the first version, it is emphasised that the construction time for a nuclear power plant in Western Europe is around 15 years, while solar and wind power facilities only take 2–3 years.

According to the critics, this assessment is based on too flimsy a data basis, because the figures are an average of the construction time for three delayed EPR reactors in Finland, UK, and France.

Therefore, Jakob Zinck Thellufsen has now also looked at new nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates, Belarus, and China, all of which were built in a shorter time.

Illustration: Jakob Zinck Thellufsen / Aalborg Universitet.

“We can see that it’s possible to do it significantly faster in Asia, in around seven to nine years. But we have to compare that to the time required to build an offshore wind farm (including planning, ed.). And if it is pure construction time that we are looking at, it takes longer,” he says.1

Thus, nuclear power in Denmark will not be able to play a role in reaching the Danish climate goal of 70 percent lower CO2 emissions in 2030 compared to 1990, he states.

SMRs are also too expensive

Jakob Zinck Thellufsen has also looked at the small modular reactors, SMRs, which are claimed by proponents of nuclear power to be able to solve one of the biggest problems with conventional nuclear power—the costs.

During his presentation, he showed a figure of what the first SMRs from UK’s Rolls Royce and USA’s NuScale are expected to cost.

The cost is around EUR 55–70 per MWh, while the cost of the Danish offshore wind farm Thor is significantly lower at EUR 40 per MWh, and the cost of offshore wind turbines in Denmark in 2030 is expected to be just over EUR 30 per MWh.

“I’m not sure that either Rolls Royce’s or NuScale’s SMRs will be the right choice in the future, but it can be quite difficult to find figures on what they actually cost. [...] and the technology is also developing, so it might be cheaper to do it (buy SMRs, ed.), but there the technology is also developing here (points to the figures for offshore wind, ed.), so the competition continues,” he says.

Illustration: Jakob Zinck Thellufsen / Aalborg Universitet.

“Where should we place them (the SMRs, ed.)? And how long can we wait for this to happen? That, I think, is an interesting topic to discuss.”

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