Nuclear power stations seem to be back on the list for the future energy system.
At least when you pay attention to COP28 results, where 22 world leaders signed a declaration to make efforts to triple nuclear energy by 2050. While even such effort would still keep nuclear fission in the area of a niche technology, I thought it makes sense to revisit my investor's view on nuclear power stations that I published close to 2 years ago to see if I missed something. I will add the original article and some supporting links in the comments below.
First of all I want to refer to our CEO Andreas Schell who has made the position of EnBW crystal clear in his latest interview with Handelsblatt: nuclear power stations are not the solution for our future energy system!
On to the details of my investor’s checklist:
1) No Fuel?
Nuclear power stations need fuel, so mining and fuel preparation activity are connected to any operation. Nature is not able to replace the fuel in a short time. No circular and sustainable operation is possible. New is here, that the fuel price has started to rise considerably in the last months, as speculators have identified uranium as a bottleneck resource and push up prices. May be good for speculation, but bad for the viability and financing of future nuclear power plant projects.
2) No Waste?
The fuel turns into toxic and radiating waste. The different technologies show a variation of toxicity and half-value time. Up to today, nobody has found a place to safely store this waste for hundreds of years. From an investor‘s view not sustainable. The only option here is that the state covers this risk.
3) Inherently safe?
Currently, no inherently safe electricity-generating nuclear technology is commercially available. Therefore, all current plants have different safety layers to avoid the worst case. As history has told us not only once, all security layers can fail if different low-probability events happen at the same time. Insurances are not willing to cover this risk, so again, the risk has to be covered by the state.
4) Low CO2 emissions?
Existing plants would only have the fuel-related CO2 emissions. This is probably the only argument, where nuclear power generation gets a plus: low CO2 emissions. In many cases, this would mean that nuclear power plants have to run longer than their originally foreseen lifetime. Therefore, heavy refurbishment investments are needed to keep them up and running. These funds would not be available to build further renewable capacity. There is a trade-off here.
5) High Flexibility?
Nuclear power plants have been designed for baseload operation. With ever-increasing intermittent renewable generation, supporting electricity generation should be flexible with a broad operating range and short ramp-up / down times. Nuclear does not fit into this picture.
6) Low cost?
More of a commercial sustainability factor, but even here keeping written-off nuclear power stations into operation needs heavy refurbishment investments. So low cost only works by lowering safety regulations. And who wants to be responsible for this?
Additionally, one can only guess the costs of waste storage.
And new plants? The ones under construction are having large budget overruns and time delays. Hinkley Point C in the UK is proving this point again.
Nuclear generation is costly and can only be artificially offered at low prices, if the government asks to do so e.g., by owning the state-controlled utility and by taking over the insurance risks and the waste handling. France is an example here.
And finally, a typical investor criterion:
7) Risk/Return profile
Would you invest in a technology that has limited upside but unlimited downside? Probably not, but this is exactly the profile of nuclear power generation. The downside, even though at a low probability is so big, that without the government taking over the risk, no nuclear power plant would be in operation today.
So maximum 1 out of 7 points for nuclear power generation on my investor sustainability checklist.