May 23 2024

Large-scale Nuclear Costs: Has the CSIRO hit the mark?

The latest iteration of the CSIRO’s assessment of generation technology costs for Australia (GenCost 2023-24 Final Report) can be expected to come under close scrutiny.  It comes in the lead up to the Opposition’s planned release of an energy strategy, which will include proposals for nuclear power plants in Australia, and the CSIRO’s work estimates the capital costs along with the potential timelines.

The decision to include these estimations stems from the feedback the CSIRO received following the release of the draft report last year.  There were 45 submissions, with a majority of those calling for the inclusion of large-scale nuclear plant costs alongside those already included for small modular reactors (SMR). We take a look at the CSIRO’s approach and the factors driving it.

To arrive at its estimates the CSIRO has used South Korean costs which is considered amongst the lowest cost based on having a continuous build program.  A more detailed summary of how the South Korean costs were translated to Australia is below.

In summary, based on the South Korean costs and extrapolation to Australia, the CSIRO expects the capital costs of a large-scale nuclear plant in 2023 in Australia to be $9,217/kW or $9.2 million/MW and that this figure would only be achieved if there was a commitment to a continuous build program. There is an expectation that the capital cost for the first large-scale plant, however, would be higher than the estimate because of the challenges of building a first-of-a-kind (FOAK) technology in Australia. It also notes that “FOAK premiums of up to 100% cannot be ruled out”.

The estimated electricity cost range based on those capital costs and a continuous build program from large-scale nuclear is $163/MWh-$264/MWh, which would be expected to come down by 2040 to $141/MWh-$232/MWh.

The Challenges of Comparison

The GenCost report notes that some of the challenges in trying to pin down an estimation for Australian nuclear plant costs based on overseas data includes:

  • Likely higher local installation costs compared to overseas best practice. This is based on what has been seen for most generation technologies in Australia.
  • Lack of a skilled local nuclear workforce. While the CSIRO notes an experienced workforce could be brought into the country, it would involve extra costs.

The report also notes that where lower installation costs of nuclear plants have been reported overseas, it has stemmed from factors such as:

  • Low labour costs (such as in the UAE).
  • Retention of a skilled workforce through an extended build program.
  • Lower environmental and safety standards.
  • Governance, cultural factors and lower levels of litigation.
  • Explicit or other subsidies.

Whilst there is a risk of a FOAK premium for a nuclear build in Australia, the CSIRO has not included it for large-scale nuclear given it has not included a premium for other technologies that are also not yet deployed locally, such as solar thermal oroffshore wind.

Why South Korea?

South Korea was selected because it has had a continuous nuclear build program since the 1970s, with the most recent unit completed in January this year at the Shin-Hanul plant, which used local technology (APR 1400). Its program is considered to represent an established technology rollout (Nth-of-a-kind, NOAK).  For Australia to achieve this, it would require 5-10 units to be built as part of a continuous program, according to the CSIRO.

To convert costs to an Australian equivalent, the report considered differences in ultra-super critical coal (USC) plant costs in Australia and South Korea and then South Korea’s ratio of nuclear costs to USC costs. USC plants were considered relevant because, like nuclear plants, they tend to have large nameplate capacities, use conventional steam turbines and associated equipment and have a significant construction labour component and long construction times, compared to other types of power plants.

The costs considered for South Korean USC and nuclear plants were[i]:

  • USC - $1024/kW, $1.024million/MW (USD 2018).
  • APR 1400 nuclear - $1746/kW, $1.746 million/MW (USD 2018).

The ratio of Australian to South Korean USC plant costs used is 3.0 when all costs are considered in the same currency.  To arrive at the Australian figure of $9,217/kW, the South Korean costs were multiplied by 3.0, inflated and converted from USD in 2018/kW to AUD in 2023/kW. The report notes that new large-scale nuclear costs are significantly lower than those for an SMR.

The CSIRO also has responded to several stakeholders who have pointed to the experience of some overseas jurisdictions that enjoy low-cost nuclear power. It suggests that there two reasons why this might be the case:

1. New generation technology electricity costs have “only a weak transferability” between countries and cost differences can arise from differences in installation, maintenance and fuel costs, or subsidies and different levels of state and private ownership.

2. The observed lower costs in most cases are for historical rather than new projects, where they could have been funded by governments or where capital costs have already been recovered by private investors.

As a result of these factors the CSIRO argues “there may be no meaningful comparison that can be made between overseas nuclear electricity prices and the costs that Australia could be presented with in building new nuclear”.

Aside from the costs the GenCost report has also outlined the challenge that need to be overcome for a large-scale nuclear plant locally:

The size of the plant which would include a generating unit of more than 1000MW generating unit would need to be covered when not available – this is larger than the current biggest generation unit in Australia, which is around 750MW in Queensland’s Kogan Creek Power Station.  Refuelling and maintenance can take an average of two months for nuclear plants, according to the US Energy Information Administration. So that would need to be factored into market operator planning. Adding to that challenge, given the lengthy timeframe of 15-20 years it estimates to get a nuclear plant to operational status, the CSIRO notes most large coal plants will have left the grid in that timeframe and would not be available to backup nuclear sites during planned and unplanned outages.  Without coal plants being available, other capacity would be necessary to deal with any reserve gaps which would likely be in the form of storage and gas peaking plant.

Timing

The other contentious discussion point for nuclear is invariably how long it would take to get a plant up and running.

Total development time for nuclear includes pre-construction work as well as the actual construction time. Key pre-construction activities that need to be finalised include:

  • Overcoming legal prohibitions at a state and federal level
  • Site selection and acquisition
  • Technology design and engineering
  • Grid connection
  • Impact studies
  • Permitting – technology, environmental
  • Sourcing water and fuel
  • Project financing, including power purchase agreements
  • Putting together development and construction teams or contractors.

Construction is considered to take 5.8 years based on an assessment by advisory firm Lazard. The CSIRO contends that with the additional legal and safety and security steps needed locally “the first nuclear plant in Australia will be significantly delayed”.

It points to the 15 years considered to be needed for an SMR as an indicator of the time needed. It notes that even in the US with a more developed legislative framework for nuclear, the now cancelled Carbon Free Power Project (an SMR project) would have taken 15 years from its formal launch to reach full operation.

The CSIRO argues that given this timeframe for SMRs, large-scale plants are likely to take longer and that even for the UAE, which is cited by stakeholders as providing a relevant development timeframe for Australia given they were coming from a similar starting point, took 13 years from the release of a nuclear strategy to 2021. Even here the GenCost report points to fact that the UAE may have abbreviated some stages of permitting that could take longer locally given a different political and approvals dynamic.  Some stakeholders have pointed to ANSTO developing its 20 MW reactor for medical supplies at Lucas Heights in around 10 years[ii].

Regardless, the CSIRO argues any extended development timeline could leave projects open to the risk of political change and a shift in requirements for approval or a further prohibition on nuclear. Avoidance of this risk would require bipartisan support.

Conclusion

Despite earlier criticisms of the draft GenCost report in December 2023, the CSIRO has addressed various areas in its final report based on stakeholder feedback.  In addressing the lack of costings for large-scale nuclear, the CSIRO has developed a costing that will remain open to debate. The sensitivity around the costings, given the political environment, has seen the CSIRO go into substantial detail on the factors it has taken into consideration.

 

[i] The CSIRO GenCosts were determined on the same EPC cost basis as the Aurecon (2024) assessment used elsewhere.

[ii] ANSTO developed the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor, which opened in 2007.

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