Nuclear Power Doesn’t Belong In Our Energy Mix
Posted on September 18, 2008
The presidential season usually brings silly proposals, but a particularly atrocious idea this year is to revive nuclear power. John McCain deserves an "F" for wanting to build 45 new nuclear plants, and Barack Obama no better than a "C" for failing to criticize McCain's position with any coherence.
Nuclear power is a disaster for community economies. According to the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), of 1100 industry categories a nuclear reactor is the second least likely to be small and locally owned. And every expensive reactor built will wind up slowing, distracting, and ultimately undermining our ability to roll out cost-effective local energy alternatives.
Nuclear power has become so costly that a U.S. utility has not brought a new reactor online for a generation. By the late 1970s the construction costs of a single reactor - once predicted to be several hundred million dollars - had, in fact, skyrocketed to several billion dollars. Projects were taking upwards of a decade to complete, an impossibly long time for a utility to predict exactly what its customers' demand would be. Utilities that bet heavily on nuclear - in New Hampshire and the Pacific Northwest for example - nosedived into spectacular bankruptcies, convincing utility executives, regulators, and investors was that nuclear power no longer made economic sense.
Nothing fundamental has since changed. To the contrary, recent trends discussed below actually weaken the case. But politicians are pledging their allegiance to nuclear power irrespective of price, wanting to look tough, to posture for the listeners of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and to find an "easy fix" for rising oil prices.
The industry concedes that under favorable conditions, a reactor started today will cost $7 billion. These huge costs carry such great financial risks that even with the U.S. government willing to guarantee 80% of the construction costs of each new reactor, only three utilities have applied for licenses to get started. And these applicants refuse to proceed unless Uncle Sam guarantees 100% of the financing, essentially removing all their own financial risk. John McCain is happy to oblige and commit the $300+ billion of federal money for 45 new plants. This from the "straight talk" candidate who insists he'll change Washington, trim the waistline of the federal budget and end corporate welfare.
The local alternatives to nuclear power
If nuclear power were our only electricity option, then an extreme position like this might be justified. But the truth is that nuclear electricity is many times more expensive than decentralized electricity alternatives. Energy guru Amory Lovins and Imran Sheikh have just written a brilliant paper demolishing the economic rationale for going nuclear. In the face of huge, low-cost opportunities, they propose instead that we save energy through efficiency measures (like better appliances, lighting, and motors) and produce it through wind, solar, small waterpower, geothermal, and other "micropower" opportunities. Among their most salient points:
- The free market has rejected nuclear power. No current nuclear project on the planet has been financed by private investors risking their own money. The countries with supposedly robust nuclear programs, like France and China, have essentially mounted top-down government efforts that hide their excessive costs.
- New nuclear electricity is unaffordable. If a utility built a nuclear reactor today in even half the time projected – that is, 5 years – it would need to charge consumers a minimum of 27 cents per kilowatt hour just to cover the capital costs. That excludes the costs of operation and delivery. This is three times the current typical generation costs of utilities today. "At that rate, even [solar] photovoltaics could look like a bargain" say the authors. More typically, however, these costs are between two and ten times more expensive than efficiency and micropower, the costs of which are likely to shrink with emerging technical advances and mass production.
- The alternatives to nuclear power are already here. Europe already has demonstrated the potential of cost-effective micropower. The windy state of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany now gets 39% of its electricity from windpower, and expects wind to supply 100% by 2020. Micropower provides more than half of all electricity in Denmark, more than a third in Finland and Holland, more than a quarter in Russia, and roughly a fifth in Russian, Germany, Japan, and Poland. Globally in 2006, annual output of micropower surpassed that of nuclear power and grew 40 times faster.
- Even China is embracing renewables. "China’s impressive and widely heralded nuclear ambitions have been far eclipsed by its little-noticed world leadership in distributed renewables," report Lovins and Sheikh. "By the end of 2006, China has already installed 49 gigawatts of distributed (small-scale) renewables - excluding an additional 37 gigawatts of big hydro. That's seven times its nuclear capacity, growing seven times faster."
- Nuclear power is less reliable than the alternatives. Even though micropower technologies are intermittent - the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine – a "portfolio of many smaller units is inherently more reliable than one large unit, both because it's unlikely that many units will fail simultaneously, and because 98-99% of U.S. power failures originate in the grid, which distributed generation largely or wholly bypasses."
- Nuclear power is unnecessary. Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) have calculated that the United States could save four times the current output of nuclear power through efficiency measures that are cheaper than the average cost of just operating the reactors. The potential for U.S. industrial cogeneration – that is, tapping waste and process heat to create electricity - is at least as large as the U.S. reactors currently operating. And U.S. windpower potential on land is double the nation's annual consumption of electricity. Finally, huge additional potential lies offshore: "Just a 100 by 100 mile area of Nevada – less than one-fourth the nation’s paved road and street area – containing 10%-efficient photovoltaics in half its area could annually produce as much electricity as the United States uses."
- Nuclear power exacerbates climate disruption. From a greenhouse gas standpoint, the pursuit of nuclear power makes little sense when efficiency measures, according to RMI, can save seven times as much carbon per dollar as nuclear power.
Has Barack Obama mentioned any of these points on the stump? Has he challenged McCain's mad, new corporate welfare program? Hardly. Instead, here's the type of vague response he offered in Jacksonville, Florida: "I think that nuclear power should be in the mix when it comes to energy. But I don't think it's our optimal energy source because we haven't figured out how to store the waste safely or recycle the waste." Not optimal? A part of the mix? How about totally unviable, irrelevant, and wasteful?
And what about the problems of nuclear weapons proliferation, in which Senator Obama has some real expertise? Every new use of uranium and nuclear technology inevitably spreads and legitimates that same materials and know-how that can be deployed for nuclear weapons. How can either candidate argue with a straight face that the world faces deadly threats from tiny reactors run by Iran and North Korea, and then pretend a massive new reactor program poses no national security risks?
Change is the mantra for both candidates. But when it comes to changing our nation's disastrous energy course, neither is offering new arguments – or embracing the policies necessary for securing our energy independence and reducing our carbon footprint. Is any candidate prepared to let the American public know that the energy crisis can be solved through just efficiency and renewables, and that nuclear power stands in the way?