The Nukes of Hazard: Two Years After $500 Billion Fukushima Disaster, Nuclear Power Remains Staggeringly Expensive

On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant north of Tokyo was hit by a wall of water 43 feet high that destroyed or disabled enough equipment to cause three reactors to melt down.

Two years later, the people of Japan are bouncing back. The nuclear industry, not so much.

The United States has not (yet) built a new nuclear reactor since 1996 — new U.S. nuclear capacity has essentially flatlined. The U.S. still has far more nuclear power generation than any other country, though China, Russia, India, and Korea are actively constructing new reactors. A few U.S. building permits have trickled in since 2007, when an energy bill with incentives for new nuclear plants passed Congress. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that:

The first newly licensed nuclear-power plant to be built in the U.S. in decades, the Vogtle project in Georgia, has run into construction problems and may be falling years behind schedule, according to an engineering expert advising the state.

Nuclear power may continue to be a small wedge of our energy pie, but it is still not going to be more than a small wedge of the solution to human-caused climate change. Here’s why.


A new nuclear reactor will set you back a cool $10 billion or more. The Department of Energy is promoting a plan to build as many as 50 small modular reactors per year starting in 2040. Constructed in factories, these reactors would cost “only” $3-5 billion each.

But before they even get to building a new reactor, the nuclear industry has relied upon about ten times as much in federal subsidies compared to those reluctantly offered to renewable energy developers. This is important to keep in mind as the industry complains about wind energy subsidies lowering electricity prices.

One of the arguments the nuclear industry has made over the last several decades is that though it is expensive right now, once the industry learns how to construct plants again, the financial structure changes as costs drop. This appears to be the opposite of true: Nuclear power has a negative learning curve.

Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed.

Nuclear power has always been very expensive, and will continue to be staggeringly so, especially if we are to build in safety and redundancy measures needed to avoid future Fukushimas.


Japan faces combined clean up and compensation costs at Fukushima estimated to reach $500 billion. The timeline for decommissioning the ruined plant is 30-40 years. There is a $6 million robot deployed to inspect the damaged hallways that got lost in the plant and has not been seen for 17 months. And the cost estimates are just guesswork:

Cleaning up the mess will mean total demolition of the four damaged reactor facilities and disposal of the nuclear waste in a yet-to-be determined site, an end-game likely to face opposition from potential host communities.

Japan has rejected the “sarcophagus” option used at Chernobyl, where the damaged reactor was encased in a massive concrete envelope. This is partly because of the difficulty of monitoring an entombed facility to ensure safety, said Kentaro Funaki, director of the industry ministry’s office in charge of decommissioning.

Estimates for total costs are mostly guesswork. “Only God knows,” said Chuo University’s Annen.

Whatever the final bill, Japanese consumers are likely to end up paying much of it, either through taxes, higher electricity rates or both, even as Japan’s government struggles with massive public debt and the costs of an ageing population.

If you ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the safety record of U.S. reactors (as the Associated Press did), they would say “the performance is quite good.” Only five out of 104 reactors had safety issues at the end of the year. However, a Union of Concerned Scientists report found that during the whole year, 40 out of the 104 had at least one serious safety incident. This map shows you the locations of 12 reactors that almost melted down in 2012.

Are U.S. reactors learning from the Fukushima accident? Not really:

Even before the new rules are completely in place, the NRC is considering a new regulation related to the Japan disaster: requiring nuclear operators to spend tens of millions of dollars to install filtered vents at two dozen reactors.

NRC staff recommended the filters as a way to prevent radioactive particles from escaping into the atmosphere after a core meltdown. The filters are required in Japan and throughout much of Europe, but U.S. utilities say they are unnecessary and expensive.

The Nuclear Energy Institute said filters may work in some situations, but not all. … “We’re not against filtering. It’s how you achieve it,” said Marvin Fertel, the group’s president and CEO. …

“It’s not the time to be rash with hasty new rules, especially when the NRC has added 40-plus ‘safety enhancements’ ” to its initial requirements following the Japan disaster, said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.


The only reason people consider nuclear as an alternative to fossil fuels is due to relatively low lifecycle emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear energy are low enough to be in the range of many other renewable forms of electricity generation. Their emissions occur not during electricity production, but through everything else required to commission and decommission a nuclear plant: “plant construction, operation, uranium mining and milling, and plant decommissioning.”

The problem is you couldn’t build the reactors fast enough to make a difference. Even prior to the disaster at the Fukushima reactor, nuclear power was never a climate cure-all as we reported back in 2007: If the world built about 2 nuclear plants each month for 50 yearsalong with some 10 Yucca Mountains to store the wastenuclear power would still be under one-tenth of the solution to global warming.”

Those numbers make clear nuclear power will not be a large piece of the pie in lowering emissions to stabilize below 450ppm.


The availability and security of nuclear waste storage are unresolved problems. The courts have decided that the executive branch and the states need to resolve the issue of where to put the waste, and all they appear to have concluded in three decades is “not in Nevada.”

The issue of where to put the growing national pile of nuclear waste (2,000 tons a year in spent fuel alone) is unlikely to be resolved in the next three decades. Whatever the solution ultimately is, it won’t come cheap.

What do proponents say about waste concerns? “Blah, blah, blah.”


One nuclear reactor uses 35-65 million litres of water each day. Large mounts of water are also used in the uranium mining process.

Two plants in Georgia use more water than all the water used by people living in Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah combined.

* * *

Climate hawks have always had an ambivalent relationship with electricity powered by nuclear fission, primarily because, while it is low-carbon, it is so damn expensive. So although we have a hundred or so plants in the U.S. that will be with us for the foreseeable future, it is much more cost-effective to continue to promote and rely on truly clean, cost-effective renewable energy and energy efficiency.

46 Responses to The Nukes of Hazard: Two Years After $500 Billion Fukushima Disaster, Nuclear Power Remains Staggeringly Expensive

  1. Addicted says:

    Even ignoring new plants, existing nuclear plants cannot compete with wind.

    Of course, some of the negative effects of wind energy only expose the criminal lack of decent electricity infrastructure (almost no storage, horrible interconnections between grids, etc). But unfortunately (and I meant it…for all its flaws nuclear >>>coal/natural gas, and its flaws means that perversely even Republicans support it), nuclear is not looking like any sort of answer to the energy problem.

  2. fj says:

    One-half $trillion for Fukushima cleanup is a bit of a show stopper.

  3. M Tucker says:

    The Japanese population MIGHT be “bouncing back” but that is not what I have heard. I have heard about a lot of stress disorder and distrust of food and water. I have heard about testing machines in stores where, for a sizable price per test, you can have food items sampled for radiation. I have heard of families paying a considerable price for food purchased from special stores to ensure their children are not eating contaminated products. I have heard about folks who will only purchase bottled water imported from countries far from Japan. I have heard about distrust of fish and rice coming from Japan and Japanese waters. I have heard about vast areas of the country still looking like war devastated regions.

    As for the nuclear option, cost, water use, and the waste issues have the biggest influence on me and my opposition to nuclear power. For proponents of nuclear is seems the enormous amount of energy output each plant produces when compared with wind and solar that influences them. And yes, they downplay any notion that the waste is a problem and some aggressively deny that water use is an issue. Wind and solar PV do not have any water demands. In a drought plagued world it would be wise to minimize water use to produce electricity.

    The safety problems are not minor and they do add to the cost issue, just SoCal Edison…San Onofre is still having problems and Edison does not want to pay.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Great article Ryan & Joe – and era that is very slowly winding down (at least here in the U.S.).

  5. LFP says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article! I’ve been battling the puzzling conversion of environmentalists to the nuclear cause and these data highlight the points I’ve been trying to make. Besides the elephant in the room (ie, radioactive waste), there are many purely economic reasons to avoid nuclear power.

    Yet more ammunition against the “all of the above” energy policy strategy that Obama inexplicably seems so fond of.

  6. john c. wilson says:

    The March 11 2011 earthquake ruptured reactor plumbing at Fukushima Daichi and the meltdowns were underway well before the tsunami struck.

    Thank you for noting that the 500B cleanup guess is only a guess. We have as yet no idea what the cost of treating (and not treating) all the thyroid cancers will be. A comprehensive cleanup is at this point impossible. The Pacific Ocean will not be filtered to remove radioactivity.

  7. Jim Baird says:

    Waste – the problem resolved. The same force of Nature that precipitated the Fukushima disaster, subduction, resolves the waste problem by conveyance into the Earth’s mantle.

  8. Lou Grinzo says:

    And let us not forget the multiple instances of nuclear plants being throttled back or shut down entirely for weeks to months because there wasn’t enough cool water available. It’s happened repeated in the last decade in the EU and the US.

    This is just another example of how climate change invalidates many of the assumptions that underlie our long-lived infrastructure.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    As ERCOT has learned the hard way an energy only market results in a lack of reserve capacity. My understanding is that they are accepting proposals to change the market rules so as to retain dispatchable generators.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    No, everything was under control until the backup batteries discharged and the backup diesels could not be started as the fuel tanks had floated away with the receding floodwaters. Even then meltdown could have mostly been avoided has the use of seawater for cooling commenced earlier.

    All in all, the Fukushima Dai-ichi workers improvised quite well and the plant manager deserves a hero’s medal.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    The once through nuclear pins still contain over 99% of the extractable energy; shame to waste it. Instead use a fast reactor such as the GE-Hitachi PRISM to consume it beneficially.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    And then there is the rollout of enough solar PV to replace older generators:

  13. Paul Klinkman says:

    Nuclear power is, as Japan has learned to its horror, the last energy source on earth to be considered as “reserve power”.

    I agree that absolutely no one on the catastrophic climate change side has been talking about the need for balancing power demand with power supply 365/24/7. That’s a shame for making climate progress because answers exist. I’ve mentioned a couple. As long as too few people talk about the existing answers, ordinary people will read something into their lack of transparency and won’t trust the movement as a whole.

  14. Paul Klinkman says:

    It’s probably not enough. Are they going to bury all the topsoil in northern Honshu? How do they clean the cesium out of the ocean’s food chain with only half a trillion?

  15. Paul Klinkman says:

    They can always sell unlabeled food from Japan in the U.S.

  16. Paul Klinkman says:

    This time it’ll certainly be safer than last time, so put it under the Capitol building in D.C.

  17. Paul Klinkman says:

    Doesn’t the Capitol dome look a bit like a nuclear reactor containment building with a spike on top?

  18. David B. Benson says:

    V.C. Summer and Vogtle are now, by NRC criterion, under construction:
    This brings the world total in some stage of site preparation or construction to 69 reactors.

  19. drt says:

    The Department of Energy recently announced plans to help fund a new, efficient and cost-effective blueprint for a small modular reactor design.

  20. David B. Benson says:

    Coal burners are worse.

  21. Martin Vermeer says:

    > … is unlikely to be resolved in the next three decades.

    But half of it will be… and then, half of what remains. And then… it’s called radioactive decay ;-)

  22. Martin Vermeer says:

    Actually, putting a reactor close to an urban area would allow the waste heat (70% of the total power production) to be harnessed for space heating.

    For some reason or other very few plants are built close to built-up areas… I wonder why :-/

  23. Martin Vermeer says:

    > The once through nuclear pins still contain over 99% of the extractable energy;

    Yep, and the hydrogen in the coolant water flowing through the reactor contains more energy still…

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It could be free and I would still reject it. It is an anti-life technology and a mistake born of human hubris, ignorance and utter disrespect for Earth, ME

  25. Addicted says:

    Nuclear power in a Midwestern state would not be half as risky as nuclear power in Japan of all places.

    The problem with nuclear power always was, and always will be, that barring a major breakthrough, it is ridiculously expensive. And unlike wind, solar, and geothermal, it’s cost curve with time is negative (ie it gets more expensive with time, as opposed to other renewables which are becoming cheaper by orders of magnitude with time).

    The only advantage nuclear has over wind/coal is that its energy generation profile matches that of our outdated infrastructure, since it is similar to coal. Wind/solar OTOH are intermittent generators, and to extract their full potential, we need a better grid (which we need anyways,)

  26. Uzza says:

    Chernobyl only had about 6000 thyroid cancers, and that is mainly because there were no restrictions on the intake of food from the contaminated areas.

    The Japanese government were very quick in stopping it, along with distributing iodine pills, preventing the uptake of I-131, and drastically reducing the maximum effective thyroid dose received from ~490 mSv from Chernobyl to 23 mSv for children and 33 mSv for adults from Fukushima.

    The reports of 40% of the tested children having thyroid nodules has been shown to not be caused by Fukushima, as testing around Japan has shown that children that have not been near the contaminated areas have the same rate of thyroid nodules, meaning that it’s the national average.

  27. fj says:

    I guess people look at nuclear powered battleships with rail guns and aircraft carriers that have more energy than what they know what to do with, and they say that’s pretty neat . . . But, it seems the high density energy thing is doing us in. We do not know how to deal with it.

    Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and it seems that communities and manmade places dependent on high energy densities do not work very well.

    It seems we need a lot more practice designing and living highly normalized with nature and its systems and those advanced highly useful things that we create that work best with and in these environments.

  28. Stephen W says:

    “A power generation method that is so expensive, so incomprehensibly technical, so centrally organised, so elusive of democratic control, so elitist, so male-dominated, so thoughtlessly, massively exploitative of resources – such a system mirrors precisely those areas in our society most in need of ecological change” – from a UK Green Party leaflet over 20 years ago discussing Nuclear Power.

    Still true … and then some.

  29. Spike says:

    The staggering cost of the UK cleanup isn’t stopping the incompetent UK government eagerly seeking to persuade the French to build more nukes in the UK, promote fracking, and rubbish renewables. The cost of cleaning up the Sellafield nuclear waste site has reached £67.5bn with no sign of when the cost will stop rising, according to a report.

  30. MarkF says:

    With one short fact filled article they demolish nuclear power.

  31. Bob says:

    Great Britain is willing to guarantee a price of roughly $0.16/kWh for 35 years to have the additional nuclear power plants built.
    Not a bad long-term price, if you can get it.

  32. Joe Romm says:

    That’s a dreadful price! PV is cheaper.

  33. Ed Leaver says:

    With all respect, the same might be said for any and all technologies that have enabled human population to exceed the estimated 2 billion long-term sustainable mark. But being here, the question is, “what do we do now?”

  34. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely! Whenever it comes to the nuclear energy racket, multiply the early estimates by ten, and add a special bonus for TEPCO, whose record even before the Fukushima catastrophe, was woeful. There are several more nukes in Japan just waiting for the right quake to hit them, including the plutonium re-processor designed to provide the material for the rapid production of nuclear weapons, once Abe or some other revanchist does away with the detested (by the USA and the Japanese Right) ‘Peace Constitution’.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘When in a hole, first stop digging’.

  36. Bob says:

    I should have put in the sarcasm warning.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Cameron et al and not primarily ‘incompetent’. In my opinion, like all the latest generation of Rightists, particularly in the Anglosphere, they are basically simply wicked and immensely arrogant, thinking that their favourite tactics of bullying intimidation and aggression can cow the forces of Nature. They are causing immense human suffering….and loving it!

  38. john c. wilson says:

    “Only” is an interesting choice of words in describing 6000 thyroid cancers.

    If 40% of Japanese children had had nodules before Fukushima this would have been so medically novel and unusual it would be firmly established in the literature. The “contaminated area” is Japan.

  39. john c. wilson says:

    If Fukushima is what under control looks like I would hate to see out of control.

  40. David B. Benson says:

    Still require dispatchable generators.

  41. David B. Benson says:

    Contains errors. For example there are currently 3 to 5 NPPs under construction in the USA, depending only on how one chooses to count.

  42. David B. Benson says:

    Try Chernobyl.

  43. Gingerbaker says:

    $500 billion is, coincidentally, very close to the cost of enough solar PV panels needed to replace every calorie of carbon-fuel energy the U.S. needs.

    The major cost of a large-scale PV project to solve America’s CO2 emission problems *forever* is the cost of clean up from a single nuclear power plant!

    Perhaps the cost effectiveness of large-scale solar/wind becomes quite clear?

  44. Martin Vermeer says:

    Even offshore wind starts looking positively cheap at that price:

  45. Andrew says:

    I’m surprised and confused at the same time after reading through the article and comments. I had always thought that I was one of those loners out there that thought nuclear was a bad idea to be considering for the US. I say this because 90% of the people I have conversations with, intelligent or otherwise, want nuclear for our energy needs.

    My argument has always been about cost and the improper disposal of waste. But even these are scoff at and pushed aside like they didn’t even matter to be worthwhile in a discussing.

    Glad to say it doesn’t appear that I am alone and although many of you are online and faceless it still brings hope to me. I’ve worked on solar and wind turbines in the past and while I can’t have no experience in nuclear I can say that at least they are much safer than going nuclear.

    Just imagining the horrors of the aftermath should deter anyone from considering nuclear. Surely we must have at least learned something of Chernobyl or Hiroshima and their horrors that continue to this day?