photo: Jason Hickey
In a press conference call yesterday that's how Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute described nuclear power, "the economics are just not there". In the hour long briefing Brown went on to describe the myriad challenges facing expanding nuclear power and, the real, serious environmental issues aside, how it simply does not make financial sense compared to investing in renewable energy. Here's the rundown on Brown's argument:
Wind Power Cheaper Than Nuclear
Brown opened by citing work done by Amory Lovins which indicates that the costs of electricity from a new nuclear plant is about 14 cents/kWh, while electricity from a new wind farm only costs about 7 cents/kWh. And this doesn't include the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, insuring nuclear plants and decommissioning the plants. He added that the only way in which you can argue that nuclear is cost competitive is if you externalize these costs onto taxpayers in general.
Waste Disposal at Yucca Mountain = $923 Million Per Reactor
He went on to detail these not insignificant costs, starting with the Yucca Mountain waste depository in Nevada: He described Yucca Mountain, set to open in 2017 (19 years behind schedule), as having such cost overruns that if you divide its current estimated price tag of $96 billion over all the 106 currently operating nuclear reactors in the US, the waste disposal costs per reactor are $923 million each.
Taxpayers Would Pick Up Most of the Cost of a Big Accident
Moving on the issue of insurance and liability in the case of accident, Brown pointed out that the maximum amount of liability insurance that nuclear facilities are able to avail themselves of is $300 million per reactor. In the event of accident, other nuclear facilities would be required to contribute up to $95.8 million to help defray costs (up to a maximum liability of $10.2 billion). Which sounds like a lot until you realize that the Sandia National Laboratory says that in a worst case scenario accident, damages could cost $700 billion. The difference between what nuclear companies could pay out and what was required to clean up an accident would have to be covered by taxpayers, Brown said.
Decommissioning Costs Per Reactor as High as $1.8 Billion
In terms of decommissioning nuclear reactors Brown cited a 2004 IAEA estimate of $250-500 million per reactor to close it down; but he went on to assert that some reactors with high levels of waste to be disposed of, such the UK Magnox reactors, costing as much as $1.8 billion per reactor.
Considering that of the world's 439 operating nuclear reactors, and assuming a generous 40 year lifespan (the average age of reactor at closing is 22 years), 93 reactors will close between 2008 and 2015, these decommissioning costs are substantial.
Construction and Fuel Costs Rising Rapidly
Concerning the costs of building new nuclear facilities and operating them, the trend is solidly towards increasing costs, Brown said. Two years ago Brown explained that building a 1,500 MW reactor might cost in the range of $2-4 billion. Today that figure is closer to $7 billion per reactor. Rising material costs, as well as a shortage of skilled workers owing to a worldwide slowdown in nuclear industry growth, were cited as key factors in these cost increases.
Fuel costs too are rising:
At the beginning of this decade uranium cost roughly $10 per pound. Today it costs more than $60 per pound. The higher uranium price reflects the need to move to ever deeper mines, which increases the energy needed to extract the ore, and the shift to lower-grade ore. In the United States in the late 1950s, for example, uranium ore contained roughly 0.28 percent uranium oxide. By the 1990s, it had dropped to 0.09 percent. This means, of course, that the cost of mining larger quantities of ore, and that of getting it from deeper mines, ensures even higher future costs of nuclear fuel.
Currently there are 36 nuclear reactors under construction in the world, 31 of which are in Eastern Europe and Asia. In various stages of completion, these projects are bringing about 1000 MW of new nuclear capacity online globally each year.
Wind Power, Renewables a Better Investment, Creates More Jobs
Brown contrasted this slow growth and rising costs for nuclear to wind energy growth, saying that in 2008 the estimated global increase in wind power will be 30,000 MW.
Summing up the situation he asserted that a dollar invested in wind power (just used as an example, similar things could be said of solar or other renewables) produces more jobs, more energy and reduces more greenhouse gas emissions that does a dollar invested in nuclear power.
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