What Fukushima doesn't change

How nuclear power is perceived by the general public will take decades to return to what it was a week ago. (Kind of like radioactive decay.) But the list of immutable and defining characteristics of the technology is long one and nothing that happens in Japan is likely to change them. First up: the daunting economics.

Each gigawatt reactor costs upwards of $14 billion these days. And climbing. As the increasingly useful Climopedia at Climate Central puts it: "the question on many peoples' minds today is not what the last nuclear power plant cost, but rather what the next nuclear plant will cost to build." And no one wants to put up a loan for a project with unknown costs. This is why utilities keep trying to get state regulators to let them hike electricity rates before they even get approval to build a new nuclear power plant; the usual sources of major infrastructure funding won't touch these things.

Source: Keystone Center

While the capital and operating costs of renewables, most notably solar PV and thermal plants, keep falling, nuclear's is on the opposite slope. In the medium and long-term, this is a fatal flaw. Yes, we could make nuclear power cheaper by loosening regulations, the environmental review process, and safety protocols, but does anyone really want to include such a plank in a re-election campaign?

Then there's the problem of what to do with the waste. The "temporary" cooling ponds will eventually fill up and, sooner or later, someone is going to lose the NIMBY wars. From a technical and ecological point of view, this shouldn't be difficult, but the more waste we produce, the shorter the list of suitable sites grows. So overcoming the political hurdles will only get harder if we keep producing the stuff. Reprocessing is expensive, doesn't completely eliminate the need for disposal, and raises the specter of the third inescapable challenge: the proliferation of weapons-grade fissile material, about which nothing more needs to be said (but here's a link anyway).

Finally, we have the problem of lost opportunity. It takes 12 or 15 years to build a nuclear plant, in part because the safety issues require careful and, as the Fukushima disaster makes clear, necessary regulatory oversight drags out the process. Solar, wind, and other renewables can be built much faster because there simply aren't any "worst-case" scenarios to worry about. (OMG, the solar panels are dirty!) And given the need to start replacing fossil-fuels with zero-carbon alternatives within the next decade (see the countdown clock on the left-hand sidebar) if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we can't afford to wait for nuclear.

To wrap up and clarify: What happened in Japan does not change these fundamentals. It may enhance them to one degree or another -- increasing the regulatory scrutiny or strengthening safety protocols, thus further hiking costs. But nuclear power's disadvantages were writ large last month and they remain so.

If a way can be found around any of them, by developing thorium reactors, for example, then the technology should be reevaluated honestly and dispassionately, regardless of the literal and figurative fallout from Fukushima.

For more on this vein, see Greg Laden's thoughts.

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Thanks for setting out this case simply and logically. The waste problem is always last in these discussions, it seems and the one that has always bothered me the most. The stuff just never goes away and no one wants it in their backyard, so there is no good solution.

What does France do with their waste. I know they reprocess, but there is still waste, but I don't know how much. Any links on that issue?

By Janet Camp (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

First of all:Do we need to make our preferences in making 'public choice' based on Science and Economics alone or their interaction in the policy environment?This is I believe is one fundamental question that one educated and informed citizen should ask to himself/herself or others.My own way of solving this dilemma that not only I find myself the Great Einstein also found after 2nd World War is to rely on ethical judgment in selecting science for public consumption or utility.On ethical grounds I have reservations and serious ones I say as to Nuclear Power Use as Energy source although that is renewable at present.Thanks.Mr. Muhammad Z. Khan 1992 HSPH,Harvard University

"What does France do with their waste. I know they reprocess, but there is still waste, but I don't know how much. Any links on that issue?"

All the highly radioactive waste in the world after reprocessing so far would fit in a structure 2 meters high and size of the football field.

I.e. it's tiny. So that's why nobody bothers with it right now, it's just easier to store waste near reprocessing plants.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

EIA in 2010 estimates capital cost of nuclear at about $5G per GW, for a two unit reactor.

Industry doesn't take such low-balls seriously. Commissioning, capital and financing costs easily add up to $10/GW and higher. See:
-- jh

Large scale solar has about the same estimated capital cost per GW.
But, largest solar plant currently in operation is what, 0.15GW?

Steinn @4, The largest solar thermal project in the world is 60MW. There is a similarly sized solar thermal plant in construction in Central Texas. Calfornia has a 550MW solar thermal plant in planning stages (expected in 2014).

The top PV farms are in the 80-90MW range.

I'm coming to the horrid realization that we are too damn stupid to deal with managed risks. The option over the next 15-30 is simply not coal vs renewables. There is approximately 340 GW of coal burning electricity capacity right now. We could make the decision to build the safest currently available nuclear plant, and built it as safely as possible, without stopping every few years to redo a multi-year total plan review. At the same time, given the current political climate, the Indian and Chinese governments are the only ones willing to do so. Where are those GW solar plants, and GW wind farms we need if we are going to switch away from coal. We have proven nuclear designs now, they aren't perfectly safe, but the goal should be safer than coal, and switching out coal in a reasonable time period.

By Robert S. (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

Robert, the US is averaging 5 Gigawatts of installed wind power per year. China averages about 14 Gigawatts of installed wind power. The EU (all member countries) is installing about 10 gigawatts per year.

The US has a 370 MW solar thermal plant under construction. Spain has almost 1.4 Gigawatts of soalr thermal capacity under construction. The US has 7.3 Gigawatts of solar thermal facilities announced. With another 7 Gigawatts announced over the rest of the world.

The US has another 2+ Gigawatts of solar PV under construction.

The switch is happening, but unless one keeps up with it, one might not even realize it's happening.

Renewables are safer (in deaths and injuries) than fossil fuels. All renewables are cleaner (pollution) than all non-renewables. Wind and solar are simpler and fast to build than all other forms of electrical generation.

Choice between fossil and nuclear, nuclear wins.
Choice between fossil, nuclear, and renewables, renewables win.

OgreMkV @7
Based on your numbers, and a 40-60 percent uptime for solar/wind we would need 30-60 years to replace our current total coal capacity. On top of that, while solar and wind will have the peak capacity, we will likely have to rearrange the way we do business to deal with the times the sun isn't shining, and the wind simply isn't blowing. I just think we cant afford the current cost of coal, and we can afford the costs of nuclear. For the foreseeable future we will need some sort of high uptime power production, coal is dirtier then nuclear, natural gas will spike in cost once this current glut of supply is burned through, and we don't have the storage tech right now to level off the daily changes in solar/wind.

By Robert S. (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

I never said nuclear was cheap, I said we can afford the cost. As we keep using coal as our primary fuel source for base load the costs of pollution, are NOT paid by the plant owners, but rather society at large. Nuclear energy has costs associated with it, from proper engineering, to the build, to monitoring and decommission. The one cost it doesn't have is dumping thousands of tons of CO2 into our shared atmosphere. I wonder how happy we will be with coal when the first underground CO2 sequestering location fails.

One of the other reasons it costs so much is that 90% of costs to build the plant can be spent, and the regulating authority can say, "sorry we decided you cant build after all". We should be able to reduce some of the political overhead without sacrificing safety, or we can reduce the political overhead and use the gains to enhance safety.

MikeB said "If it comes down to coal v nuclear, then I'll go nuclear." Right now it is coal vs nuclear. If we start now, we could replace most of the coal plants in 10-20 years. Perhaps 20 years from now we will have the grid, and the storage tech to implement more renewable takeover of base-load, and I will push for paying off and shutting down any plants that are no longer needed.

The costs of building and shutting down plants is minuscule compared to the costs we will all be facing if we don't massively cut back on our carbon emissions. To do that we need to cut back on coal for electricity. And the only thing we have that is ready right now to fully replace coal is nuclear, with all its costs, and its risks.

By Robert S. (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

I hate the way that wind and solar energy are measured in terms of "installed capacity." It seems misleading to me. The real measure of a wind or solar energy facility is its average power production, not its maximum possible production on the windiest or sunniest day. The numbers for installed generating capacity quoted by OgreMkV should all be reduced by 70-80%, since most renewables have a capacity factor of 20-30%.


The question really is nuclear vs. coal vs. natural gas. Though of course we should continue to expand solar and wind, especially solar thermal.

I'd also like to see some non US comparisons for installation cost for nuclear plants, since the data on that cost vs. date graph is all 30 years out of date. China seems to be making it work, though god knows what kind of shortcuts they are taking...

The problem with nuclear is that we don't have time to replace coal with nuclear, and the money we spend on trying means that we starve the things that might actually make a difference. If you think about the average time it takes to actually build a nuclear plant (in reality, not the fanciful estimates which the industry itself loves), your talking a decade. A decade where basically nothing happens in terms of energy production. On the other hand, efficiency, wind and solar can all get in production far quicker, and at less subsidy cost. Yes, China wants to build them, and build them fast. But can you have it fast and good? Time will tell.

We can devolve and smarten the grid, use waste heat and devote more resources to alternatives - and make money. If solar is going to competative soon http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=smaller-cheaper-fast… - then why continue with a technology which has consistantly economically failed? Nuclear isn't cheap, its just that its long history of subsidy makes it appear that way.

I'm in complete agreement with Ogre 'Choice between fossil and nuclear, nuclear wins.
Choice between fossil, nuclear, and renewables, renewables win.'