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What is the future of nuclear power?

Greg Studen  |  04/04/11 @ 9:09am

The Japanese nuclear crisis has caused many people to look again at the pros and cons of nuclear power. Many of the most powerful reasons for doubting the viability of a large new nuclear power sector are economic.  For example, here is an analysis of the costs of building, operating, maintaining, and decommissioning nuclear power plants.

Nuclear plants are fabulously expensive, impossible to price ahead of time because of astronomical cost overruns, and they take over a decade to build--that's a decade monstrously difficult and time-consuming siting issues have been resolved. To get a longer term perspective on this, look at the article from a talk given by Craig Severance at a March, 2010 conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the Global Public Policy Institute.

A few highlights from the Severance article: 1. 100 nuclear plants would cost over one trillion dollars. 2. The financial markets have conclusively abandoned nuclear power. 3. Nuclear power makes no business sense.

Craig Severance is a CPA with substantial government and business experience, and the editor of the website www.energyeconomyonline.com He is one of the leading opponents of a large new commitment to nuclear power. He bases his argument strictly on a business analysis. Note that Obama proposes over $36 billion--he wanted $54 billion but backed off--in loan guarantees to the nuclear industry. In 2003 the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prepared cost estimates for loan guarantees of up to 50% for new nuclear power plants. The Director of the CBO wrote in 2010, "...At that that time [2003], CBO concluded the risk of default would be well above 50 percent...." See here

Nuclear plants are not fundable in commercial markets, and are also uninsurable. What to do with the waste? Yucca mountain (a $90 billion project!) is dead--and way too small anyway to support a expanded nuclear power industry. Meanwhile, steadily increasing numbers of spent (dangerously radioactive) fuel rods lie perpetually (we hope) entombed in swimming pools. Department of Energy Director Steve Chu continues to support Obama's nuclear power expansion plans, but the experience appears to be very painful for him.

The GreenCityBlue Lake Northeast Ohio climate action plan also suggests that the number of nuclear plants required to maintain a today's percentage of baseload generation is not achievable. GCBL modeling showed that the US would need 638 nuclear facilities operating by 2030 to maintain 20% of projected baseload - an increase of more than 500 facilities from what exists today. It's not at all certain where anyone thinks these 500 plants would be located, even more so with the situation in Japan. 

If, for the sake of discussion, additional nuclear is going to be one of the answers to reducing CO2 emissions from energy generation, then a more robust discussion needs to be had on where the 500+ new reactors would be located.  Would 10 or 15 new reactors be welcomed in Ohio?  If so, where?

Thinking about nuclear energy also brings to mind the "wedges"analysis of potential non-CO2 energy supplies. This is the idea that our future energy economy can be represented by a "pie" divided into about 14-15 wedge-shaped pieces, where each piece represents a particular source of energy:  wind,solar, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, efficiency improvements, "clean coal," etc.    

Joe Romm has a good discussion of the wedges on the "Climate Progress" blog.  Romm includes a "wedge" of nuclear in his analysis of 14 wedges of non-carbon power needed to stabilize the climate at 450 ppm and less that 2?C warming by 2050. However he cautions that this one "wedge" requires 700 new nuclear plants and 300 replacements, plus ten Yucca Mountain waste repositories, all by 2050, and at a cost of $7-8 trillion. As he observes in a bland understatement: "not likely."  See here for his post on the nuclear wedge.  

The biggest, cheapest, and most practical non-carbon energy source is still efficiency. Joe Romm at Climate Progress advocates that efficiency should be our top priority climate solution. 

McKinsey & Company, in their well-known analysis of CO2 reduction options, projects huge savings in energy use by 2030 from efficiency improvements, and at negative cost over the life of the projects. They do note "substantial barriers" to the adoption of more efficient behaviors and technologies.

This view of our energy situation strongly implies that we should continue to focus on identifying and overcoming the barriers to adoption of more energy efficient behaviors and technologies. The most effective projects will be those that educate and inspire people to advocate for and adopt more low-energy lifestyles.

Readers of this blog are urged to learn more about efficiency at the Cleveland SmartHome project and climate change programs at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History this summer.

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