The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing
The paper reviews the history and the economics of the French PWR program, which is arguably the most successful nuclear-scale up experience in an industrialized country. Key to this success was a unique institutional framework that allowed for centralized decision making, a high degree of standardization, and regulatory stability, epitomized by comparatively short reactor construction times. Drawing on largely unknown public records, the paper reveals for the first time both absolute as well as yearly and specific reactor costs and their evolution over time. Its most significant finding is that even this most successful nuclear scale-up was characterized by a substantial escalation of real-term construction costs. Conversely, operating costs have remained remarkably flat, despite lowered load factors resulting from the need for load modulation in a system where base-load nuclear power plants supply three quarters of electricity. The French nuclear case illustrates the perils of the assumption of robust learning effects resulting in lowered costs over time in the scale-up of large-scale, complex new energy supply technologies. The uncertainties in anticipated learning effects of new technologies might be much larger that often assumed, including also cases of "negative learning" in which specific costs increase rather than decrease with accumulated experience.
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