By Russell Lowes, 12/24/2021 (This was earlier published in the Newsletter of Physicians for Social Responsibility–Arizona Chapter.)
Can you imagine having two grocery stores, one where you pay the regular price for your groceries, and another store that has the same groceries for three times the price? That is the situation with new nuclear energy.
Unfortunately, some have said that nuclear should be part of the future energy mix, some even saying that nuclear energy can help save the planet. They miss the mark by a mile.
The cost of nuclear energy is so high that it actually forces utilities to produce more fossil fuel electricity. Here is how.
New nuclear energy is very expensive. The total delivered cost is about 28.5¢/kilowatt-hour (KWH). In other words, you get about 3.5 KWH per dollar that you spend on new nuclear energy. For comparison, a home in Arizona might consume 650 KWH per month. Instead of paying the current 12¢/KWH, if you bought nothing except new nuclear electricity, your bill would more than double.
So, with that in mind:
Each $1 you spend on new nuclear electricity gives you 3.5 KWH;
Each $1 you spend on solar, with battery backup, provides 10 KWH.
3.5 minus 10 KWH gives you a deficit of 6.5 KWH for every dollar spent on new nuclear electricity.
How do you make up for that 6.5 KWH deficit? Households and businesses will have to buy more energy from their utility — 75% of that will be from fossil fuels. That is because on average, in the U.S., 75% of all grid energy is generated by fossil fuels. That means for every dollar spent on new nuclear energy, 4.9 KWH will be produced by fossil fuels (75% of 6.5). If you buy more new nuclear energy, then you will buy more fossil fuel energy. It’s that simple.
In other words, this deficit of 6.5 KWH is called “opportunity cost” in economics. It is what you did not get because you spent your money on the wrong option. One person’s loss is another person’s gain. Opportunity indeed — it’s about money – big money – for the greedy profiteers who build these polluting plants.
It would be like buying groceries for triple the normal cost at an overpriced grocery store, but you get only one third the groceries. Why? Because you went to the wrong store.
It is a fool’s errand to pay triple the cost of your groceries. It’s a fool’s errand to buy nuclear at triple the cost of electricity from solar with battery backup.
On top of that – never forget this – there is the nuclear waste that is toxic for millions of years. Add the much higher water use, the production of nuclear-weapon ingredients, uranium mining contamination of the Navajo Nation and elsewhere, the massive nuclear subsidies (your money), and more. The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.
Let’s get all the groceries we need for a decent price, and all the electricity we need for a decent price.
P.S., the same goes for other expensive options, not just nuclear energy. The other false options include carbon capture and sequestration coal and gas (aka “clean” coal and gas), and even some “renewable” options like corn ethanol as a gasoline additive.
Nuclear is a drain on our ability to deal with climate solutions, energy needs.
Dr. James Hansen is dead wrong. He is wrong about nuclear energy being able to make a contribution to solving global warming. He has little or no grasp of the economics of nuclear energy, and that leads him to mistakenly support this doomed option.
Let’s just forget for a moment a key negative aspect of nuclear energy. Let’s assume that there is no greenhouse gas from the nuclear fuel cycle, even though the two lifecycle meta-studies done so far both peg the number at approximately sixty-five grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, more than six times that of wind energy.
Let’s focus instead on costs of new reactors in the U.S., which make them infeasible to solve energy and global warming problems. The newer round of reactors Dr. Hansen would like to see are very similar to the last group of reactors finished in the 1980s in at least one aspect – economics. These reactors require giant nuclear steam supply systems, oversized condensers, large plant footprints, huge reactor containment buildings and an insane level of complexity compared to the other options – and even more complexity and construction material than the last round of reactors.
There have been recent proposals for smaller reactors. The U.S. nuclear program started out small and chose to go with larger reactors to reduce cost per kilowatt. The small reactors would just spread out the radioactive waste, relative cost and complexity issues over a wider ground.
Simply put, the nation, and the planet, can neither gain traction against global warming nor solve its energy problems practically and cost effectively, with nuclear energy. The nation and the world would in fact be set back by the extreme additional cost, compared to a better planned energy strategy. That alternative strategy includes solar, wind, energy efficiency, storage and energy management technologies, plus a rapid phase-down of fossil and nuclear energy.
Let’s just forget that an accident like the one at Fukushima can endanger an entire nation’s nuclear energy program. This is where Japan switched from nuclear to mandated energy cut-backs and massive increases in fossil energy use. It is five years later and things still are not back to normal. However, the Japanese have amplified their renewable energy program.
The last significant round of U.S. nuclear construction was completed in 1987. The average reactor was completed for around 3,100 dollars per kilowatt of capacity. See Brice Smith, Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change, found at www.ieer.org/.
***Editor’s note: Dr. James Hansen, the renowned climate change scientist, has said that nuclear power is essential to combat climate change. A number of environmentalists disagree including Lowes and Mainland.***
“This lower-cost clean energy blend would not
only produce less greenhouse gas, but also save
$92 billion/year.” –Russell Lowes
Let’s just forget about other issues like national security, and the likelihood that centralized nuclear plants remain vulnerable not only to terrorism and foreign attack but also natural disasters, accidents and operator error. Let’s ignore the Fukushima disaster as well as the damage that some U.S. nukes have already shown in tornados and hurricanes, plus the creeping onset of sea-level rise and storm surges. Let’s also put aside the problem of disposing of long-lived radioactive waste, which is enormously expensive, technologically intractable and probably insoluble.
We’ll just continue on with what 6,211 dollars per kW would cost for one reactor. If we ran this out from this year to 2023, at four percent inflation, the cost per kW would equal 8,173 dollars.
One of us, Russell Lowes, has been accurately projecting nuclear costs since the 1970s (only four percent off on Palo Verde reactors projected in 1978 for 1986 completion). He has come up with twenty-seven reactor construction cost factors, perhaps the most varied list of factors compiled for nuclear construction costs.
The estimate is that the reactors of the early 2020s will cost about twenty percent more in real dollars than the reactors finished in the last big wave of the mid-late 1980s. This considers factors that would make reactors cheaper than in the inflation-adjusted cost of the past, like labor cost declines in America. And it also takes into consideration factors that would increase the costs, like material cost increases, and increases in plant robustness requiring more cement, copper, steel, etc.
If an average U.S. reactor in the future is 1,350 megawatts of capacity, this average nuclear reactor would cost 9,808 dollars per kW in 2023. That’s 13.2 billion dollars per reactor.
“When you put a dollar into nuclear, that dollar
would cause only four kWh to be delivered to
ratepayers, versus seven for wind.” –Edward Mainland
Assume a higher than average thirty-year capitalization cost, say fourteen percent instead of twelve percent for a typical large fossil plant, due to increased risk (per the Standard and Poor’s ratings agency). The cost per kilowatt-hour just for construction, for an eighty-five percent plant output average, would be 13.8 cents per kWh over forty years.
This would be upped by operation and maintenance costs. See Keystone Report, “Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding,” page 42. Add 4.3 cents per kWh for operations and maintenance, plus transmission and distribution of say 7 cents, to deliver the average cost of nuclear energy to 25.1 cents per kWh.
This compares to solar power purchase agreements of 7.5 cents for production, 13.5 cents delivered, with prices continuing to improve. It compares with wind at 3.5 cents, 10.5 cents delivered, and energy efficiency at 3.5 cents. It compares to rooftop solar at about 12 cents delivered with net metering, including on-site transmission and distribution.
Let’s put this on a larger scale. The U.S. spends about one trillion dollars on all energy each year. If it were to build, say, a hundred nuclear reactors, the cost would be about 1.325 trillion dollars for construction. With the interest, operation and maintenance, etc., this would cost ratepayers in the U.S. about 173 billion dollars per year.
This 173 billion dollars is almost half our current annual electricity outlay in the U.S. The equivalent energy produced from solar and wind, and saved from energy efficiency improvements, per kWh, is shown in Table 1.
The 11.8 cent average cost for energy received and saved in the Table 1 energy mix would translate to 81 billion dollars per year, compared to the nuclear option of a hundred plants at 173 billion dollars per year. By the way, this lower-cost clean energy blend would not only produce less greenhouse gas, but also would save 92 billion dollars per year.
We have only a limited amount of dollars to put into energy. When you put a dollar into nukes, you get about four kWh. When you put that dollar into centralized solar, you get about seven kWh. Rooftop solar gets you about eight kWh. Wind delivers about nine kWh. Energy efficiency delivers twenty-nine kWh saved for every dollar spent.
The U.S. has limited capital resources for energy. They shouldn’t be wasted. When you put a dollar into nuclear energy, instead of putting the same dollar into one of the cheaper options, for example wind energy, that dollar would cause only four kWh to be delivered to ratepayers, versus seven for wind. This creates a deficit of three kWh, that now needs to be recovered from this mismanaged dollar.
As Amory Lovins said, “If you buy more nuclear plants you’re going to get about two to ten times less climate solution per dollar and you’ll get it about 20 times slower than if you buy instead the cheaper faster stuff.”
Nuclear energy is plainly a boondoggle, one that is made even more expensive when you consider its subsidy costs, compared to the other options covered here. It would be one thing for James Hansen and others to consider nuclear energy if it gave you extra value, compared to the other options. Instead, it is a financial drain on our ability to deal with climate solutions and energy needs. It is time to nuke the nuclear option.
Russell Lowes is the primary author of the book, “Energy Options for the Southwest, Nuclear and Coal Power.” This was used by citizens creating initiatives at California electric municipalities to cancel Units 4 and 5 at the Palo Verde nuclear plant. Lowes projected a cost of $6.1 billion for the nuclear plant, west of Phoenix, compared to the industry projection of $2.8 billion. The plant came within four percent, at $5.9 billion, perhaps the most accurate projection for a nuclear plant in the U.S. Lowes testified before the Arizona Corporation Commission, as an expert witness on the economics of power plants. Today he heads SafeEnergyAnalyst.org, and is the Energy Subcommittee Chairman for the Southern Arizona Sierra Club Rincon Group.
Edward Mainland is co-founder of Sustainable Novato and currently Secretary of Sustainable Marin, both volunteer groups in Marin County, California that promote long-term community sustainability and local self-reliance. He has been Senior Conservation Fellow at the International Program at national Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco, and co-chair of California State Sierra Club’s Energy-Climate Committee.
. . .From Renewables and Energy Efficiency to a Counter-Productive Industrial Web
Twelve Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Energy and Support a Green Energy Future
We have a complete set of energy solutions: solar cells, wind turbines, concentrating solar, ocean current and wave energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, and the list goes on.(1) As these technologies mature, we can quickly reduce nuclear, coal and gas use.
The most environmentally and economically destructive sources of electricity should be reduced now, as other technologies emerge. The phase-out of nuclear, coal and gas electrical energy will reduce global warming while freeing up monies for renewables, efficiencies and energy storage.
This list focuses on the nuclear energy option. Nuclear energy is being heavily promoted with millions of dollars in public relations budgets by the nuclear industry. This compilation will expose the nuclear myths.
California and Germany are two examples of how to make the switch toward a safe and effective energy future. In California, the per capita energy has gone down through a myriad of efficiency techniques.(2)In Germany, solar production has gone up radically, through a savvy system of support, which is turning Germany, hardly known for sunny days, into the top solar country.(3) See the graph at the top of the article for the California example.(2)
Twelve Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Energy and to Support Renewables and Efficiencies.
1) Nuclear Energy is Too Expensive. In 2002, industry estimates for building reactors were in the $1500-2000 per kilowatt range.(4) Estimates crept up to $4000 by 2007.(5) Then, the Moody’s ratings firm projected around $5000.(6) Even more recently, Florida Power and Light estimated between $5300 and $8200 per kilowatt.(7) This amount of capital would cause nuclear energy to cost far more than the alternatives.
The record of nuclear reactor costs in the 1980s, about $3100 in 1987, combined with general inflation would yield about $6496 in 2014 dollars.(8) The current round of U.S. reactors being built is likely to start up in 2022. In the 1970s and 80s the average overrun for nuclear construction was more than 220%.(9) This record of massive overruns compared to roughly 50% for coal plants.(10)
At $9000/KW, 1000 reactors would cost $9 trillion. The capital payback would be $1.26 trillion per year, exceeding the $1.1 trillion we spend on ALL energy in the U.S. annually. This would be an 114% increase in total energy cost, just to cover the capital expenditure of construction of a robust nuclear program. This does not include fuel costs, operation and maintenance, nor the occasional accident or early retirement of some of these reactors. With this much going into nuclear energy alone, the money available for solar and other real solutions would dry up.The capital markets would be dominated by a sliver of the American energy system.
2) Expansion of Nuclear Energy Would Worsen Global Warming. Even if nuclear energy had the CO2 advantage the nuclear industry claims, building at least U.S. 1000 reactors would be required to significantly reduce global warming.(11) Over 20 years there would be one reactor completed weekly. The world has never seen anything near that kind of construction performance.(12) Additionally, uranium resource depletion is occurring. Within about thirty years, the amount of energy required just to mine, mill and build reactors would exceed the CO2 levels of natural gas plants.(13) It would worsen thereafter, with possible reactor shut-downs, due to fuel availability problems.
3) Nuclear Energy Represents a Long-Term Negative Net Energy. Nuclear plants already have a long-term negative net energy and CO2 level higher than fossil fuels, if you count the energy to manage the waste over the legally required one million years.
4) The Most Stripping of our Public Lands through Mining Would Happen with Nuclear Energy. With ore quality diminishing, mining levels would skyrocket. To illustrate, when we have to resort to mining granite for uranium, the weight of ore would equal fifty times the weight of coal per kilowatt-hour.(14)
5) High and Permanent Government Subsidy Is Required. Nuclear energy is too risky for investment without its insurance renewed by Congress (the Price-Anderson Act, 1957). The property cost of a major accident could top half a trillion dollars.(15) Additional medical costs are waived by the Act. The industry has said if it does not get the government to guarantee loans, it will not build any reactors.(16)
6) Unacceptable Accident Potential Persists. Analysis has put the chance of at least three meltdowns at 50% if the world opts for the large number of 2500 nuclear reactors. The ecological and economical impact of one meltdown would dwarf the impact of Hurricane Katrina, with thousands of years of radiological damage.(17)
7) National Security Is Compromised. After the September 11 attacks, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said reactors could withstand impact of a 747. They have since retracted this statement.(18) This same terrorist network may target a nuclear reactor in the future. Additionally, every hot on-site reactor spent-fuel pool is a perfect terrorist target, with waste that would melt down from such an impact. These targets are not reasonably protected.
8) Nuclear Energy Has the Most Water Usage. It has lower thermal efficiency compared to fossil-fuel, at 33%, compared to 40% for coal, and 45% for natural gas. Nuclear energy requires more water for cooling. The Palo Verde plant, 35 miles upwind of Phoenix, requires about 55% the water of a city with a half-million people, like Tucson, Arizona, or 120,000 acre feet of annual water use.(19)
9) Too Much Radiation Is Produced. Governmental studies conclude that there is no additional safe level of radiation. Radiative gas is released into the air at the reactor site, routinely, increasing cancer risk.(20)
10) Million-Year Waste Legacy Will Burden Society. The EPA had a 10,000 year waste management requirement, until the courts replaced it with a 1,000,000 year time line.(21) Just 5.3 kilograms of Plutonium-239, which has a half life of about 25 thousand years, is enough for a nuclear bomb.(21a)
11) Civil Liberties Would Diminish. With an increase terrorist threat to a highly vulnerable and risky system in place, the pressure on governments to subdue civil liberties will always be there with nuclear energy.
12) Finally, Other Options are Better. U.S. wind energy increased 140% over the last five years, with the capacity of sixty-one nuclear reactors added.(22) With Texas gaining the lead in 2006, one Texan said that Texas will never lose this lead to any other state in the nation. We need bold strides like this.
Americans are far more resourceful than to think that we have to return to an over-subsidized outdated electricity option like nuclear energy. We need to use our limited energy dollars for real solutions that work! Support renewables and efficiencies instead of nuclear energy.
Russell J. Lowes, Research Director at SafeEnergyAnalyst.org is the primary author of a book on the nation’s largest nuclear plant upwind of Phoenix, “Energy Options for the Southwest, Part I, Nuclear and Coal Power,” released in 1979. The book played a principal part in the cancellation of two additional reactors at this plant.
Footnotes: 1) Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, “Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy,” 2007, at http://www.ieer.org/carbonfree/ 2) “OnEarth” Newsletter, National Resources Defense Council, Spring 2006, http://www.nrdc.org/onearth/06spr/ca1.asp# 3) Reiner Gaertner, “Germany Embraces the Sun,” Wired, September1, 2007, http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2001/07/45056?currentPage=1 4) For example, The Future of Nuclear Power, An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, 2003. 5) Tulsa World, “AEP Not Interested in Nuclear Plants,” 9/1/07. 6) SNLi, “Moody’s Sees High Risk in Building New Nuclear Generation Capacity,” 10/10/07. 7) Curtis Morgan, Miami Herald, “Turkey Point: FPL Asks Panel to Allow Two More Nuclear Reactors,” 1/31/08, http://www.miamiherald.com/ 8) Brice Smith, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change, 2006, p. 8. http://www.ieer.org/reports/insurmountablerisks/ For inflation calculate, see http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl 9) Energy Information Administration, An Analysis of Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs, DOE/EAI-0485, p. 18. Also, EIA, Monthly Energy Review, August 1994 10) Charles Komanoff, Power Plant Cost Escalation, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1981, page 2. Note: a range of 33 to 68% for coal overruns, averages to about 50%. 11) Brice Smith book. 12) Ibid. 13) David Fleming, The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy, a Life Cycle In Trouble,” summary/Nuclear Energy In Brief, 2007, http://www.nirs.org/climate/background/leanguidetonuclearenergy.pdf 14) See reports at www.stormsmith.nl, updated periodically. 15) U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Sandia Labs, Impact of a Meltdown at Nuclear Plant, Consequences of Reactor Accident (CRAC-2) Report, 1982. 16) Dan Morse, Washington Post, “Money Matters in Reactor Project Debate; Financing, Rather Than Safety, Appears to Be Key Factor in Whether Plans Proceed,” 9/5/07, p. B-5. 17) Brice Smith report. 18) Bill Brubaker, Washington Post, “Nuclear Agency: Air Defenses Impractical,” 1/29/07. 19) Arizona Nuclear Power Project, “Use of Effluent Water at Palo Verde,” communication from ANPP to Maricopa Association of Governments, November 17, 1977. See also, http://www.aps.com/general_info/AboutAPS_18.html See also, University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, Water Resource Availability for the Tucson Metropolitan Area, 2006. http://ag.arizona.edu/azwater/presentations/Megdal.az.water.resource.avail.for.tucson.pdf 20) National Academy of Sciences, Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation May Cause Harm, Press Release, 6/29/05. Also see: U.S. NRC Effluent Database for Nuclear Power Plants, 2004 http://www.reirs.com/effluent/EDB_rptLicenseeReleaseSummary.asp (Some navigation required.) 21) Ascribe, The Public Interest Newswire, “Managing Nuclear Wastes for the Millennia,” 1/7/07.