The Kernel
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The Kernel

A bus burns in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
A bus burns in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

The price of decarbonisation? A week of war in Ukraine

If humans were as serious about saving life as they were about destroying it, climate change would be easy to solve

B y now, any further comment condemning Russia’s horrific war in Ukraine should surely be superfluous. But amidst the rubble, death and destruction, is there an opportunity to gain some perspective on other threats our species faces? I believe there is.

Firstly however, I want to say straight away that the following analysis is in no way intended to belittle or callously disregard the suffering of the people of Ukraine. The human costs of war have always and will always be incalculably greater than any material or financial costs, and as such should be considered above all others. Nor is it intended to piggyback on a trending topic simply to gain exposure. It’s simply an honest and hopefully objective and dispassionate analysis intended to shed light on the relative costs of saving the world and destroying it.

So, bearing that in mind, here’s what I’m going to try and determine, admittedly on the back of a napkin: how much do modern wars cost, and how does this compare with what it would cost to avert or at least ameliorate global heating?

Putting a price on destruction

“The sinews of war are unlimited money”, the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero noted in a blistering tirade against Mark Anthony in 43 BCE, and it would appear that very little has changed since that time. So, how much is the war in Ukraine costing Vladimir Putin and the Russian economy?

There are surprisingly few estimates for the direct cost of running the war — the most prominent is a report by the Centre for Economic Recovery, consulting firm Civitta and EasyBusiness estimates that Russia lost roughly $7bln in military assets and so on during the first five days of the war alone, and that the daily cost of running the war is likely to exceed $20bln. Some say it’s nowhere near this much, but given that the above $20bln figure is the most authoritative I can find, I’ll go with that.

Meanwhile, the UK’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimates that global economic sanctions will cause Russia’s GDP to contract by 1.5% this year and more than 2.5% by the end of 2023. Other estimates aren’t as generous, suggesting Russia‘s economy could contract by 7% next year, instead of growing by 2% as forecast prior to invasion. Others say the contraction could be as great as 15%. The pain could even be worse, wiping out 15 years of economic growth.

This will partially be offset by the fact that Europe still desperately needs Russian oil, gas and coal — for example, Europe pays $285m a day for Russian oil, shelling out $104bln over a year (Germany alone handed over $23.6bln). Russia is the world’s third-largest oil producer and supplies Europe with a third of its gas. The $104bln spent on oil is more than double the $43bln Europe paid for Russian gas shipments. Meanwhile, the UK will pay more than £2bln for Russian liquefied natural gas (equivalent to 33.7 TWh) this year. There’s a running total of European fossil fuel payments to Russia since the start of the war at this link; the total at the time of publication was nearly €18bln. Notwithstanding the fact that Europe is now trying to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, this will take time to accomplish.

Europe still desperately needs Russian oil, gas and coal

Although Putin was thought to be able to weather some of this storm as he had allegedly built up a war chest of more than $600bln in foreign-exchange reserves over the past five years or so, sanctions on banks and the SWIFT system may make this impossible for him to access. Moreover, the ruble initially halved in value since the invasion of Ukraine began, with some saying it was close to collapse (it has rebounded slightly but has still lost 20% of its value over the first few weeks of the war), with annual inflation in Russia already up to 12.5% by mid-March and set to go even higher.

On the other side of the coin, the war has so far cost Ukraine $564.9bn in terms of damage to infrastructure, lost economic growth and other factors. Infrastructure destruction alone has cost $100bln.

On a wider scale, the conflict in Ukraine could reduce the level of global GDP by 1% by 2023, which is about $1 trillion off global GDP. Other estimates say at least $400bln this year.

How does this compare with other wars? Well, the ‘war on terror’ has cost an estimated $8 trillion and 900,000 deaths over 20 years—as part of that, the Iraq War cost more than $3 trillion, the Afghanistan War cost $2.3 trillion

…but I’m getting a bit fatigued by all the millions, billions, trillions… the mind begins to boggle.

An abandoned armoured vehicle in Ukraine.
An abandoned armoured vehicle in Ukraine. (Wikipedia, used under CC BY 4.0 license)

Price tag of a habitable planet

So let’s concentrate on the other side of the equation that I was hoping to work out — how does the cost of war compare with decarbonising a grid with (mainly) nuclear power?

To make things simple, I’m just going to look at plant construction rather than distribution networks and so on, and similarly am going to ignore fuel and operating costs (as these are a tiny proportion of the cost of nuclear). I’m also not going to factor in lowering costs as we get more experienced in building reactors — antinuclear diehards always go on and on about cost overruns for nuclear, so let’s be as uncharitable as possible and see how much mud sticks.

Also, I’m going to try and use publicly available sources — I know, I know, I ought to use peer-reviewed stuff, but this is just a back-of-an-envelope calculation really, and I want to ensure also that sources aren’t behind paywalls so that anyone can see them.

Well, we’ve a few ballpark figures — such as China’s recently announced intention to spend $440bln on 150 new reactors over the next 15 years, equivalent to roughly 150 GW of capacity and $3bln per GW; the country has already added 40 GW of capacity over the past decade.

For perspective, in the UK (where I live) 40 GW would be enough to decarbonise roughly 80% of the country’s grid; peak demand for electricity was 52.7 GW in 2015, and the UK (which has a population of 67 million) generated 345.9 TWh in 2019.

While the UK could theoretically print £400bln overnight (hey, we’ve done it before) and just spend it on nuclear energy, we should perhaps be a little more pessimistic. How much might a 75–80% nuclear grid (like that of France) cost us?

In what’s been spent in a month on senseless carnage and destruction, six countries the size of the UK could largely decarbonise their grids

Finding estimates of this is difficult. France’s nuclear programme cost around FF 400bln in 1993 currency, excluding interest during construction. That translates to €61bln in 1999 values, and roughly €91.62bln ($101.35bln) in today’s values. That’s equivalent to five days of war in Ukraine.

That sounds fairly cheap — at the upper bounds is this one, which says the Messmer Plan (France’s strategy to roll out nuclear power), cost in 2008 values €230bln ($330 bln), roughly $434.86bln in today’s values.

OK, that does sound pretty expensive; but if we’re going to be as uncharitable as possible, we should at least look at a source that’s sceptical about nuclear (the fact that it thanks renowned anti-nuclear ‘expert’ Amory Lovins in the acknowledgements is a bit of a clue).

At any rate, that estimate still only equates to three weeks of war in the Ukraine.

How else could we work this out? Given that Hinkley C, which is under construction, is likely to cost £23bln ($30bln) and will eventually provide 7% of the UK’s electricity, 11 such plants (to provide ~80% of the UK’s electricity) would cost £253bln ($330 bln).

In terms of war costs, going by the high estimate earlier, that’s roughly equivalent to two weeks of running the war in Ukraine.

But wait — something like two-thirds of the cost of nuclear plants like Hinkley is actually the cost of the loans needed to finance building it. What if instead it used much cheaper government-backed loans, or an alternative mechanism?

That’s just what the UK is doing — by switching from a ‘contracts for difference’ (CfD) model, which was used for Hinkley, and to a ‘regulated asset base’ (RAB) model, a huge amount could be saved. Hinkley was commissioned under the CfD model, with plant builder and future operator EDF borrowing at 9% to finance it — but state-backed loans at 2% could have cut those costs in half.

And it could be even cheaper — the UK National Audit Office concluded that up to six Hinkleys could have been built for the price of one if the government had financed the project with cheap state-backed bonds.

It’d take just 7–9 days of Ukrainian war costs to decarbonise Britain’s grid

So, let’s say we can cut the price of UK nuclear by 33–50% with the RAB model. Under that model it’d take just 7–9 days of Ukrainian war costs to decarbonise Britain’s grid (assuming we’d be replacing Britain’s older existing nuclear plants along the way, some of which will need to be decommissioned in the not-too-distant future).

And this is for an old-school (though admittedly latest tech) large-scale Light Water Reactor — we’ve not looked at the possibility of Rolls-Royce’s proposed small modular reactors, each of which could come in at £2bln a pop for 470MW of capacity (enough to power roughly a million homes). Using those instead would provide our 40GW for £161bln. If state-backed finance could cut those costs by a third, we’re looking at just over £107 bln. (For context, we’re spending £100bln on a single high-speed railway line that is of somewhat dubious merit).

So that’s… five days of war in Ukraine. In what’s been spent in a month on senseless carnage and destruction, six countries the size of the UK could largely decarbonise their grids.

What about the US? Well, we’ve had a look at that before at The Kernel, so rather than repeat that work, I’ll summarise its conclusions with a few salient figures: recent new US nuclear plants have cost roughly $5.95bln/GW, though this reflects a distressed industry; historically, and globally, the cost is more like $2.5bln/GW. Using this latter figure, therefore, decarbonising 75% of the US’s peak 700GW demand would cost $1.31 trillion. This is the equivalent of just over two months of war in Ukraine.

Joe Biden greets Ukrainian refugees while on a March visit to Poland
Joe Biden greets Ukrainian refugees while on a March visit to Poland (Office of the President of the United States)

I’ve deliberately not touched on deep decarbonisation of the transport (either marine or on land) and heating sectors, or covered such topics as district heating, the extraordinary efficiency of heat pumps , or even the money that could be saved as a result of reduced air pollution — these topics can perhaps wait for another blog. Besides, it’s recognised that existing grid decarbonisation is a priority as it then enables these other sectors to be decarbonised afterwards, so it’s a good place to focus our efforts (though of course insulation and efficiency measures need to happen too).

And of course I’ve not touched on the difference that other designs using different reactor technologies other than old-school pressurised water reactors; molten salt or sodium reactors could be game-changers too, as could initiatives such as that of TerraPraxis to repower existing coal stations using nuclear, but again, that should probably wait for another blog.

But, there you have it — not only is war utterly insane, it’s also insanely expensive (but you knew that anyway, didn’t you?). Almost as insane as the $766.5 bln the US spent on its military in 2020 alone, or $4 trillion the world spends each year on fossil fuels.

Makes going to the moon — and even decarbonising the world’s economy using nuclear energy— seem cheap by comparison, doesn’t it? Brother, can you spare a dime?

There are many, many ways to aid the humanitarian effort and help the people suffering in Ukraine.

You can make monetary donations via the Ukrainian Nuclear Workers Humanitarian Fund, International Red Cross, or Unicef, or the UNFPA, the Disasters Emergency Committee, to name but three.

In the UK, you can register for the homesforukraine.campaign.gov.uk to help house refugees. You can also donate clothing, toiletries and other goods.

Here’s a list of ways that people in the US can help Ukraine. For good measure, here’s another.

All of us at Generation Atomic #StandWithUkraine and its people, and wish for the speediest possible end to this conflict.

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Rob Loveday

Rob Loveday

I geek out and write about various topics — the main ones being nuclear energy and palaeontology.