The Economist, February
18, 2012 edition, contained an article referring to America’s “…30 year itch”
with nuclear energy, manifested by its inability to move beyond the 1979
accident at Three Mile Island. The item held my interest, not for any reason related
to nuclear energy, though the lengthy period required to pay for the Muskrat
Falls scheme had me thinking of the “half-life” terminology of that industry.
contained two references with a local context; one where a nuclear plant under
construction in Georgia, by a company called Votgle, experienced a spike from
its original estimate of $660 million to a “cool $8.7 billion with electricity
costs spiking as a result”. (Thinking the
Economist to be an error, the final cost was confirmed by a secondary source).
Fortunately for the
Georgia, it has a population of just under ten million people; twenty times the
population of NL. Although, that State’s
population will pay for the Votgle’s project cost overruns through their
electrical bills, it is a private company, so the tax payer is shielded from
bankruptsy. Nalcor, on the other hand,
is playing with our dime.
A second comment,
in the same Economist Article, quoted the head of America’s largest nuclear
utility, John Rowe of Exelon. Said he: “…this
was not the time to build new nuclear plants, the main reason was not political
opposition or even the threat of cost overruns, but the low price of natural
gas. “Shale (gas)”, Rowe said, is good
for the country, bad for nuclear development”.
and arrival of the shale-gas “era” represent only two of the problems
threatening the viability of the Muskrat Falls project. But they are two
critical issues. The cost problems of the nuclear industry may be disproportionate
but the issue is all too familiar.
Falls project was first announced, it was heralded as having a price tag of
Now, that figure
has been acknowledged by the Government as having increased. Construction has barely begun. When it does, design problems and other
issues will start to emerge.
think that NL will be spared the consequences of a trend that continues to drag
on the viability of all large scale projects.
Let’s look at some Canadian facts:
- The CNRL Horizon Project in Fort McMurray: Original
authorized cost $6.8 billion. (Source: CBC February 12, 2008). According to Albertametal.ca,
final project cost: $9.7 billion.
- Imperial Oil Limited, Phase 1 of its Kearl project, $10.9
billion, about a third more than the original estimate of about $8B (Source:
next three examples come from the National Post Business Magazine:
- Syncrude’s Upgrader Expansion
1: $4.1B project (originally
estimated at around $3.5B), was started in 2000, came in at $3.7B over
budget and two years late. Cost overrun of 90%. The final cost may have actually been
- Suncor’s Millenium
Project started in April 2000 with a projected cost of $2B. Fourteen
months later costs jumped 70% to $3.4B.
- Majority owner Shell
estimated in December 1999 a cost of $3.5B for their Athabasca Oil Sands
Project. It came in at $5.7B, 63% over budget.
- How about a hydro
project for even greater relevance, say, one constructed by Manitoba Hydro,
which also circumvented its own PUB.
The Wuskwatim Hydro project had a
forecast cost of $900 million, says Tom Adams, in an opinion
article published in the Winnipeg Free Press. Manitoba’s Clean Environment Commission
(CEC) which reviewed the project, concluded, “with a 90 per cent
confidence level, costs will be within minus eight per cent to plus nine
per cent of the estimated cost.” The final cost of the project…is now
estimated by Manitoba Hydro at $1.67 billion. (Source: Wuskwatim Under Water – and Sinking, Winnipeg Free
How about projects closer to home.
- CBC recently ran a story that Vale’s Long Harbour
Nickel Smelter has experienced cost overruns of 66% from $2.17 billion to
$3.6 billion. Vale’s DG-2 cost estimate was $800 million.
- The cost of Hibernia went from $5.2 billion to at
least $6.2 billion when it was finished in 1997.
- The Terra Nova Production Platform started out at
$1.9 billion, went to $2.5 billion; in March 2009, The Globe and Mail
confirmed a final price tag of $2.9 billion.
or Terra Nova Platforms were constructed in the overheated labour environment
that has characterized construction at Vale Inco in Long Harbour.
In addition, there
is a fundamental difference between these projects and Muskrat Falls, but
probably not in the way you are thinking.
other commodities, like nickel, benefit from a booming world economy,
especially double digit growth in China and India (less so now, but oil is
still frothy on a relative basis). Increasing prices, if your timing is
fortunate, can justify the huge cost overruns.
But, high oil prices also drive exploration for alternative energy
sources, like “shale gas”. Shale gas is
now the chief substitute for coal in the U.S. as that country tries to reduce
its carbon footprint; old coal plants are replaced with gas fired electricity. The
trend is just getting started, but it is only one of the reasons for declining
experiencing a paradigm shift, as lower demand caused by a less robust U.S.
economy, smart grid technology, energy conservation programs and the shale gas
revolution, conspire to demonstrate the fickleness of trends. Adds Tom Adams in the same Winnipeg Free
Press article: “Where a kilowatt-hour of electricity earned Manitoba Hydro
6.422 cents in 2003, last year it was worth only 3.09 cents”.
to residents of this Province, NL is about to make a huge investment on a
trend, that, for the foreseeable future, is not just over, but suffering rapid decline. It is one that, even in the face of
overwhelming evidence, Nalcor and the Government still refuses to
prices in the export market magnify the impact of cost overruns and real life
consequences for fiscal policy planners; in contrast, increasing (oil) prices
and cost overruns constitute a recipe for survival. Little wonder big oil is doing just fine,
Nalcor’s engineering, procurement and construction head on the MF project. It will prepare the DG-3 estimates for
Nalcor; SNC will also handle MF design and other issues as they arise. It has a cost plus contract with no vested
interest in how well or how poorly things turn out.
projects cited and their cost overruns: couldn’t happen to Muskrat Falls, could they?