Nuclear Power Is So 20th Century

Nuclear power seems cheap, but if you count the embedded costs of dealing with the fuel, does it make sense as an option for a clean future?

When I was born, in the 1950s, nuclear power was said to be "too cheap to meter." Although few and far between, disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl have laid waste to that claim and, for that matter, entire cities. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a nuclear physicist, led the charge to eliminate her nation’s nuclear power plants in the next few years based on a rational risk analysis. With the decision by Southern California Edison to decommission its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), we may now see enough data points to reasonably conclude that the nuclear power era is coming to a close.

What is different about the SONGS decision that could lead to such a "straw that broke the camel’s back" conclusion? At one time, this plant provided 17% of California’s electricity, but its owners have now concluded that the growing portfolio of renewables (solar, wind, geothermal) and clean natural gas plants can meet the demand. They also know how effective the energy efficiency measures have been in California, which is now 40% more energy efficient than the rest of the U.S., lowering overall energy bills. The power plants you don’t build, because of such efficiency initiatives, are of course the cheapest of all.

But the main reason SONGS closure might signal the beginning of the end of nuclear power in America is that the costs of decommissioning will no longer be hidden from ratepayer view, meaning we will get a good look at how "too cheap to meter" is actually "way too expensive to keep doing." Edison invested $2.1 billion in the plant and related assets and has allocated $2.7 billion for decommissioning, a polite term meaning "clean up the mess," while admitting this is not the entire cost that will ultimately be necessary. All in, SONGS will cost California ratepayers over $5 billion, plus the cost of fuel. And who knows if the nuclear waste will ever be safely stored (we’ll need hundreds of years for the final answer to that question, regardless of where the waste ends up) or if that will add still more billions to the tally.

If it were operational, SONGS would generate about 2,400 megawatts of electricity. That works out to about $2 million per megawatt (plus fuel and the cost of waste disposal), which seems cheap compared to utility-scale solar. The recently unveiled NRG Ivanpah solar power plant cost $2 billion and generates 377 megawatts, or something over $5 million per megawatt. But the cost calculation alone doesn’t capture the real price—a price that is likely to be paid one day by every American.

The Price Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act establishes a "no fault" insurance system for nuclear power plants, which limits claims to the first $12.6 billion for damages related to disasters. Any costs above that would be covered by taxpayers—much like the estimated $250 billion that Japanese taxpayers are now facing for generations to come to clean up Fukushima. By sharp contrast, the solar industry needs no such taxpayer protection—in part, because the fuel costs absolutely nothing and there is nothing left over to clean up.

Coal and oil have advanced our economies for decades, but honest cost accounting increasingly shows the need to move beyond both as reliable, affordable sources of energy. It’s time to add nuclear power to that list and embrace alternatives that are less risky and truly more affordable over the long haul—or risk being left in the dark ages in more ways than one.

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  • MikkiVot

    To learn more about the dangers of nuclear energy, go to the highly recommended site:

    www  ENENEWS  com

  • MikkiVot

    Nuclear waste will be radioactive for 200,000 years.

    This means 20,000 generations will need to pay to keep it safely stored.

    There isn't a substance to store the waste in that lasts for more than 100 years without crumbling...either glass or stainless steel.

    So the waste will need to be put in NEW containers every 100 years.

    This is a financial nightmare.

    Nuclear waste is the largest form of LONG-TERM DEBT that any country will nuclear energy will ever face.

  • Aer12814

    Terry; you appear ignorant about energy matters and nuclear in particular.  Read up on next generation nuclear power plant design and in particular molten salt reactors using thorium.  Nuclear is the most energy dense power we have available and is in abundant quantities around the world.  This is a good for the conservation of carbon fuels and reduction of waste.   

  • Alcooke

    You compare costs between nuclear $2M MW and solar $5M MW as though they are like for like, but solar has less than 25% availability on a good day , eg. 6 hours full sunlight whereas nuclear is available 24/7. The real cost of solar is more like $20m, 10 times nuclear. And then there is the issue of plant life etc, most solar plants have design life's of 10-20 years compared to 50 years for nuclear. These type of distortions are a serious problem in coverage of these issues.

  • SMG

    Typical scaremongering by the media over nuclear power. FC recently ran an article showing just how many people died as a result from non-nuclear power, and now this? Make up your mind.
    France (ITER) is building the world's first Fusion reactor that will produce more energy than it requires (about 10x infact, 500MW in 500s), this technological breakthrough is only possible because of the knowledge we have gained from investing in nuclear power.
    Renewable energy is still hugely inefficient, unpredictable, and not nearly as powerful (power generated vs the size of the facilities). Nuclear is effectively always on (turning off a nuclear reactor takes a long time), and yes the waste is quite nasty (but with proper planning it can be buried in very safe facilities or in the future we can just launch it into the sun). There's a place for both, but the concerns over safety are a non-argument.

  • Lwmurph1


    As with most anti-nukes Mr. Tamminin is somewhat loose with
    the facts. Merkel did not lead the charge to phase out nuclear in Germany, that
    decision was a matter of political survival. Solar power will not replace
    SONGS, PG&E has already restarted two gas turbines to offset the loss of generation
    and more fossil plants will eventually either be restarted or built. Germany
    has 32 gigawatts of installed PV generation at an ongoing cost of hundreds of
    billions of Euros. The capacity factor (annualized percent of total capacity
    produced) for Germany’s solar investment is less than 10%. The capacity factor
    for America’s nuclear fleet is something more than 90%. There are about 450
    operating nuclear power plant world-wide, with over thirty under construction.
    The Chinese plan on commissioning over 400 new plants in the next thirty years.
    For a day to day glimpse of what Germany gets for its investment in PV follow
    this link: http://www.sma.de/en/company/p...