The Nukes of Hazard

Reports of nuclear Renaissance were greatly exaggerated; efficiency is 10 times cheaper today, renewables “costs are dropping fast”

… there is no renaissance.

Even before the earthquake-tsunami one-two punch, the endlessly hyped U.S. nuclear revival was stumbling, pummeled by skyrocketing costs, stagnant demand and skittish investors, not to mention the defeat of restrictions on carbon that could have mitigated nuclear energy’s economic insanity. Obama has offered unprecedented aid to an industry that already enjoyed cradle-to-grave subsidies, and the antispending GOP has clamored for even more largesse. But Wall Street hates nukes as much as K Street loves them, which is why there’s no new reactor construction to freeze. Once hailed as “too cheap to meter,” nuclear fission turns out to be an outlandishly expensive method of generating juice for our Xboxes.

Since 2008, proposed reactors have been quietly scrapped or suspended in at least nine states “” not by safety concerns or hippie sit-ins but by financial realities. Other projects have been delayed as cost estimates have tripled toward $10 billion a reactor, and ratings agencies have downgraded utilities with atomic ambitions. Nuclear Energy Institute vice president Richard Myers notes that the “unrealistic” renaissance hype has come from the industry’s friends, not the industry itself. “Even before this happened, short-term market conditions were bleak,” he tells TIME.

I’ve been arguing for a long time that there was no nuclear Renaissance, that the industry ad failed to get its act in order and had priced itself out of the market (see my 2008 analysis, “The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power“).  Then back in October, Exelon CEO John Rowe explained that Low gas prices and no carbon price push back nuclear renaissance a “decade, maybe two.”

In short, nuclear power has gone from “too cheap to meter” to “too costly to matter” (see Exclusive analysis, Part 1: The staggering cost of new nuclear power).

The meltdown in Japan pulled back the veil on the grim underlying economics of nuclear power and certainly killed the myth that we can afford to skimp on review, oversight, and safety in an effort to save money.

In a must-read piece, “The Real Cost of Nuclear Power” (quoted above), Time explains what CP readers have known for years:

Around the world, governments (led by China, with Russia a distant second) are financing 65 new reactors through more explicit nuclear socialism. But private capital still considers atomic energy radioactive, gravitating instead toward natural gas and renewables, whose costs are dropping fast. Nuclear power is expanding only in places where taxpayers and ratepayers can be compelled to foot the bill. 

In fact, the economic and safety problems associated with nuclear energy are not unrelated. Trying to avoid flukes like Fukushima Daiichi is remarkably costly. And trying to avoid those costs can lead to flukes.

The False Dawn
In 1972 a federal safety regulator, worried that GE’s Mark 1 reactors would fail in an emergency, urged a ban on containment designs that used “pressure suppression.” His boss was sympathetic but wrote in a memo that “reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power” and “would generally create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about.” Four decades after this bureaucratic pressure suppression, Fukushima Daiichi’s Mark 1 reactors seem to have failed as predicted. And while newer reactors don’t have those problems, 23 Mark 1 reactors still operate in the U.S., including a Vermont plant that was relicensed for 20 more years the day before the disaster in Japan.

As Richard Caperton and I wrote last Monday for CNN:  New reactors are intrinsically expensive because they must be able to withstand virtually any risk that we can imagine, including human error and major disasters. Why? Because when the potential result of a disaster is the poisoning “” and ultimately, death “” of thousands of people, even the most remote threats must be eliminated.

Time perhaps oversells the degree to which left wingers bought into the nuclear revival — “Left-wingers who used to bemoan the industry’s radioactive waste and corporate welfare now embrace it as an earth saver” — although a handful clearly did.

But there is no escaping the economics:

Nevertheless, investors refuse to bet on nukes. The steady increases in electricity demand that were supposed to justify new reactors have been wiped out by the global recession, and energy-efficiency advances could keep demand flat. Natural gas prices have plummeted, Congress appears unlikely to put a price on carbon, and the U.S. still lacks a plan for nuclear waste. It also turns out that building safe places to smash atoms is hard, especially after such a long hiatus. The U.S. has lost most of its nuclear manufacturing capacity; it would have to import Japanese steel forgings and other massive components, while training a new generation of nuclear workers. And though industry lobbyists have persuaded the NRC to ease onerous regulations governing everything from fire safety to cooling systems, it’s still incredibly tough to get a reactor built.

New nukes would still make sense if they were truly needed to save the planet. But as a Brattle Group paper noted last month, additional reactors “cannot be expected to contribute significantly to U.S. carbon emission reduction goals prior to 2030.” By contrast, investments in more-efficient buildings and factories can reduce demand now, at a tenth the cost of new nuclear supply. Replacing carbon-belching coal with cleaner gas, emissions-free wind and even utility-scale solar will also be cheaper and faster than new nukes. It’s true that major infusions of intermittent wind and solar power would stress the grid, but that’s a reason to upgrade the grid, not to waste time and money on reactors.

I have previously noted that nukes have gotten so expensive they may become troubled assets and ruin credit ratingsTime notes with some irony:

Anyway, there aren’t many utilities that can carry a nuclear project on their balance sheets, which is why Obama’s Energy Department, a year after awarding its first $8 billion loan guarantee in Georgia, is still sitting on an additional $10 billion. A Maryland project evaporated before closing, and a Texas project fell apart when costs spiraled and a local utility withdrew. The deal was supposed to be salvaged with financing from a foreign utility, but that now seems unlikely.

The utility was Tokyo Electric.

The bottom line in that nuclear power is wildly expensive — see Nuclear Bombshell: $26 Billion cost “” $10,800 per kilowatt! “” killed Ontario nuclear bid — and its not going to get cheaper (unlike renewables).

The industry’s defenders may ignore Fukushima Daiichi, but the industry will not. It’s serious about public safety, and meltdowns are bad for business; no company wants to lose a $10 billion reactor overnight. But additional safety measures cost money: in 2003 industry lobbyists beat back an NRC committee’s recommendation for new backup-power rules that were designed to prevent the hydrogen explosions that are now all over the news.

It may sound unrealistic to require plants to withstand a vicious earthquake and a 25-ft. tsunami, but nobody’s forcing utilities to generate power with uranium. One lesson of the past decade, in finance as well as nature, is that perfect storms do happen. When nukes are involved, the fallout can be literal, not just political.

And that’s not just a U.S. view.  In Germany, the Conservative Die Welt writes:

Chernobyl was a special case. Nuclear energy was viewed with suspicion but it was accepted as long as modern democracies harnessed it with security precautions.

That is over now. Faith in redundant, coincidence-proof security precautions has been wiped out by Fukushima. The high-tech democracy Japan has shown what could happen if an Internet attack on German or French nuclear reactors were to happen as it did with the ‘Stuxnet’ program against the Iranian nuclear program. Or if a determined, technologically skilled terrorist group were to seize control of a power station. One knew it before. Seeing it has made the difference.”

So the Renaissance that never was is over.  Now we need to focus on the serious job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly and cost-effectively — see “With new nuclear power on pause, here’s a practical, affordable (and safe) clean electricity plan.”

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29 Responses to The Nukes of Hazard

  1. S. Majumder says:

    Recursive Radiative Reset. Green Get-set Go.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Good article, but I think that Richard Meyers was incorrect when he said that the nuclear renaissance was being promoted by nuclear’s “friends”, and not its principals. In reality, these friends were never interested in building nuclear power plants per se.

    Nuclear touts from the Right have done their homework, or their paymasters have. They have the same information you do, Joe and Richard, including the key cancellation of the nuclear plant in San Antonio a few years ago. They are aware that nuclear power is a loser, on just about every level.

    Their real agenda, as I and others have said many times, is to divert interest and resources from solar, wind, and geothermal, technologies that actually work, threaten their income from gas and coal, and do not have dire consequences.

    Liberals and scientists have been trying to frame this discussion in objective terms, which it never was. The Kochs and Exxons may be hillbillies, but they are more clever in a diabolical way, including the misdirection here (much of which has been carried out by their employees in the media and US Government).

    We are engaged in a momentous struggle. Rule number 1 has been disregarded so far: Know your enemy.

  3. Colorado Bob says:

    I would add one more item to nuclear power’s long list of faults.
    As seen by the French on several occasions , and at Brown’s Ferry here.
    When temperatures really soar, and electrical demand is needed most, reactors must shut down lest they “boil the wild life” in the rivers they discharge water into.

  4. Michael Tucker says:

    Yes, but…

    There was a reason so many progressives jumped on nuclear after all these years. There still is a reason Dr Jeffry Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, still likes nuclear. There is a reason Dr Steve Chu, Energy Secretary, has not spoken out against nuclear power. I wonder why so many well educated progressives still argue for nuclear power? When you finally address, in a realistic and convincing way, their primary concern the issue will disappear. That is the only reason it is still around given the complete lack of investor interest.

  5. Michael T. says:

    David Letterman – Dr. Michio Kaku

    What are the best-and-worst-case scenarios for the nuclear crisis in Japan? Theoretical physics professor and author Dr. Michio Kaku shares his opinions.

  6. Richard Brenne says:

    Dark Ages instead

  7. paulm says:

    #6 with a red/yellow glow!

  8. sault says:

    Mike Roddy, I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but it makes sense. Just like vaporware hydrogen vehicles were used as an excuse to kill electric and hybrid vehicle programs that actually made sense and corn ethanol is now used as a club to bash all renewable or “green” energy programs.

    Nothing scares the energy incumbents more than a free market in energy where their externalities are accounted for, people have a choice in their energy sources and can make their own if they so choose. Their #1 priority is to preserve their power and influence as long as possible. Money equals power in our society, I’m afraid, and they’re hoping to cash in on the Peak Oil shortages and the climate disasters they created.

    On another note,how much more are Chevron & Exxon spending on those annoying commercials touting their investments in clean energy than actually investing in clean energy?

  9. James Newberry says:

    It is very simple legally to end the poisonous and dangerous scheme of utility atomic fission in the US. Legislators could rescind the Nuclear Energy Insurance Indemnification Act (1957). Investors and other owners would then be exposed to free-market risk assessment and liabilities and would subsequently close all nuclear plants.

    Of course, with some twenty percent of national utility power being dependent on these 104 reactors, we should prefer a (ten year?) phase out along with conversion to aggressive conservation, end-use efficiency upgrades, deep energy building retrofits and clean, renewable electric supply build-out including distributed, district and bio-cogeneration. Those initiatives would require modification of existing antiquated utility regulations across the country. However, those challenges are socioeconomic in nature and are not limited by technical capabilities and innovation.

    Our corporate plutocracy, seated comfortably in the halls of governance, again presents us with seemingly insurmountable opportunities. Is it time to convert from “An Economy of Explosives” yet?

  10. Lou Grinzo says:

    As I’ve said many times before, I find it “amusing” that with so many of the hard core nuclear power supporters coming from the right wing, and especially from the Market Fundamentalist area, that they aren’t banging the drum very loudly for the following “even playing field” energy approach:

    1. Impose an appropriate carbon cost on all forms of energy. No exceptions, no sweet deals for coal from a particular state, etc.

    2. Eliminate all energy subsidies, direct and indirect. Every last cent. Insurance, production tax credit, the whole smash.

    Under that approach, we’d see an astronomical amount of money rushing into renewables, and not so much as a hint of interest in building new coal or nuclear plants.

    Oh, wait — I think I just explained my own “mystery”…

  11. OregonStream says:

    Great article, Joe, but embedded in that piece is a fairly upbeat link from February on “nuclear batteries”:,9171,2050039-1,00.html
    Normally one would think of a battery as a mere storage device, but have we seen enough detail on these systems that would justify the hype around them being a potential low-carbon solution?

  12. Mark Bigland-Pritchard says:

    A disturbing development over at the Guardian – in a pair of articles, George Monbiot first expressed support for nuclear power given that certain conditions were met (none of which are being or can be met), and then overtly expressed support for the technology:
    Now, there is nothing new – or indeed particularly credible – in Monbiot’s argument. In fact it is rather muddled – to an extent which is unusual with Monbiot. But the fact that he has said it will provide the nuclear industry – the people whom he himself still describes as “corner-cutting scumbags” – with a new talking-point with which to attack its opponents. And, because Monbiot has credibility in sustainability circles on both sides of the Atlantic (credibility which until about 2 or 3 years ago was very much deserved), we can expect further splits within the green movement.
    Here in Saskatchewan in 2009 we successfully blocked plans for 2 nuclear power stations on our small provincial grid. I got involved in the campaign mostly because the government plans would have effectively blocked off opportunities for truly sustainable electricity generation – by hogging grid capacity, by ensuring the grid continued to be run in an oldfashioned non-renewables-friendly way, and by hogging public funds. I was a reluctant campaigner – I would far prefer to be working on sustainable systems for the future and am frustrated that is is first necessary to fight off the tried-and-failed systems of the past. Monbiot is making it more likely that we will have to endure that time-wasting exercise again.
    The stupid thing is, he just has to go about 5km up the hill from his home in Machynlleth, Wales, to the Centre for Alternative Technology, and listen to the folks there who were involved in the development of Net Zero Britain 2030, to find out just how wrong he is.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I tell you one thing. If the hard Right gets its way and gets new nukes built, the shortage of competent engineers and technicians, the loss of industrial know-how and the cutting of corners and gutting of regulatory agencies by the Rightwing political lunatics means one thing. That the safe operation and control of the plant will be an even more dubious prospect than before. It is funny how the obsessed psychotic’s ‘mind’ works, is it not? Run into a little interference from ‘externalities’ like reality, the laws of physics or scientific knowledge that precludes your predetermined course of action, and the fanatic simply doubles up. Whether it is stupidity, ignorance, a fanatical faith in the ‘magic of the market’ or a vulgar religious zealotry that says God will look after us, the rejection of reality and its replacement with a realm of ego-driven magic thinking is certainly insane. If we get through the next few decades, which we will only manage by removing the insane Right from power, worldwide, we must develop some type of psychological, moral and spiritual vetting that ensures that the clinically insane and morally deceased zombies never usurp power over humanity again.

  14. Phil says:

    Cooling Pond 4: An UAV might’ve got an acute photo of the cooling pond surface. Try again with a toy helicopter mounted with a laser rangefinder in still wind. Possibly Russia plans a Mars Mission using ping pong balls (also like “Twister” sensors) as sensor platforms. If these exist they could enclose an accelerometer, a GPS, a receiver, etc. They’d need to be lightweight enough to fall on assembly without malice. Durable enough to be dropped. Non-reactive with cooling pond environment. Cheap enough to waste a few dozen before Plinko-ing a hole-in-one. The primary objective would be water level measurement. If this is ascertained high enough, spraying could stop momentarily and leak or fast evaporation could be tested with remeasure.
    Water ought to be running off Reactor 4. Either on land to the sea, to the reactor building basement, maybe in soil running off towards the sea. Water from the cooling pond is chemically/temp/radioactively different than water from the firetruck. Is concrete too thick for thermal imaging? Funny water (would the rod oxide have eaten through to leave a trace of Plutonium?) would signify a leak or water overflowing pond, if no splashing or condensation…

    Cooling Pond 2: If the assembly crane can function it could lift ice/water from the vehicle loading area to the cooling pond. Munitions could be selected that impact partway into the side of the secondary containment wall (ie. outside wall). A 1-2m circle could be shot partway through the wall to soften it up for subsequent grappling, explosives, etc…
    If a teleoperated drill exists, it might be good to drill holes in the building roof directly above the cooling pond. If the roof collapses (water would pool on roof) and the Lunar-Lander-drill falls into the pool…advantage is water might not drown rest of Unit. There are obvious spark and reactor-bullet dangers with both latter contingencies. Can you drill and implant outwardly exploding “reactive” explosives? Rovers may be useful in this reactor for now

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Monbiot does tend to get bees in his bonnet and seems, often, unable to admit error. I believe that he is as wrong here as he was with biochar, which he quickly dismissed. Of course I have absolute faith in his honesty and good intentions, so I await his wakening from this day-dream. He seems to have lept into the Lovelock camp here, but nuclear remains the ultimate time and effort wasting cul-de-sac. His statement regarding casualties from Fukushima, when we all know that the vast bulk will be delayed and insidious, is unworthy of him.

  16. Mark Bigland-Pritchard says:

    Mulga – did you also notice his ridculously low casualty figure for Chornobyl? I’m not sure what his view of Lovelock is (after all, Lovelock is pro-biochar), but he certainly has an excessive confidence in David MacKay, who systematically downplays the potential for renewables and efficiency in his book. This is probably also what feeds another of Monbiot’s misplaced obsessions, his opposition to FiTs for pv.

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    U.S. nuclear waste problem gains new scrutiny
    Japan’s nuclear accident has focused attention on the U.S. practice of packing spent-fuel pools at power plants far beyond their capacity, which some scientists call a serious compromise in safety.

    Nuclear safety experts say that plants have packed up to five times more spent fuel rods than the pools were designed to store, though Nuclear Energy Institute officials say the pools contain no more than twice their original capacity.

    The only advantage to keeping the pools packed so tightly is the cost of the dry casks, which would run about $5 billion to $10 billion nationwide, said Frank N. von Hippel, a Princeton University physicist who first disclosed the problem in a paper he co-wrote in 2003. He said he considers fixing the fuel pool problem one of the most important steps toward making U.S. nuclear plants safer.,0,4358762.story

  18. Prokaryotes says:

    Germany’s solar panels produce more power than Japan’s entire Fukushima complex

    Germany is the world leader in installed solar photovoltaic panels — and they also just shut down seven of their oldest nuclear reactors. Coincidence? Maaaaybe … Anyway, it’s worth noting that just today, total power output of Germany’s installed solar PV panels hit 12.1 GW — greater than the total power output (10 GW) of Japan’s entire 6-reactor nuclear power plant.

  19. Paulm says:

    Global warming is for real.

    Risk assessment has to get real. 
    It has to start taking in to account the effects of climate warming.

    We are seeing more extreme weather, it also seems more geological activity.
    Water, food  shortages and disease spread. 

    Civilization is starting to crumble.

    Apart from all the obviously basic reasons not to pursue nukes, is it really wise to  do so with the chaos that awaits us due to global warming.

    I don’t think so.

    We are effectively falling back to a tribal societal structure.
    Nukes are just going to be a worst mad max scenario.

  20. David B. Benson says:

    Ambitious Solar Plans in France; Solar Capacity Factors

    AFAIK the French have (largely) given up on this idea. The latest plan seems to be off-shore wind in the Bay of Biscay to meet their EU ‘renewables’ commitment. IF the commitment were for non-fossil sources of electricity then the French would already be way ahead of everybody in have a low-fossil-carbon advanced economy. Do you know why?

  21. Prokaryotes says:

    The EU has presented a strategy paper on the developments in North Africa. This includes the proposal of establishing an EU-South Mediterranean Energy Community. That could give the DESERTEC project a big boost. According to the EU’s 2050 decarbonization scenario of reducing the emissions by more than 80 percent, “there is clear potential for building a partnership between the EU and Southern Mediterranean countries for the production and management of renewables, in particular solar and wind energy, and in having a joined-up approach ensuring energy security”.

  22. Prokaryotes says:

    Desertec, a solar power project designed to supply some of Europe’s electricity needs from North Africa, will cooperate with France’s Medgrid group

  23. Lewis C says:

    David – perhaps you are unaware that nuclear power, including even the French variety, is by definition a fossil energy ? It relies on the mining and conversion of uranium ore, which is the product of fossilization.

    But then perhaps you were hinting at the exceptionally widespread use of firewood in France – they’ve had domestic wood gasification boilers there for decades, while other European nations are only just starting their deployment.



  24. Zetetic says:

    @ Lewis C #24:
    While I think that we need to be using renewables instead of nuclear, I think that perhaps you meant something more like “non-renewable” instead of “fossil”. (To others besides Lewis, yes I know that technically uranium can be extracted from sea water, but I have to question how economical that would be.) A fossil fuel is by definition the organic remains of long dead organisms converted into forms usable for fuel.

    No offense intended, but I think that you perhaps meant to phrase that differently?

    @ David Benson:
    Thanks for the “power grid” link.

    As to why the French are looking more at solar. Maybe it has to do with having had to shut down some of their nuclear plants during heatwaves (due to using rivers as a cooling source) and import power from other countries? Not to mention the increase in public concerns after Japan.

  25. paulm says:

    Because nukes are located on the coast, basically at SL, aren’t most of out nuclear expertise and resources in the future going to be taken up in adapting to the inevitable SL rise? Yes.

    Moving a nuke plant before inundation is not going to be trivial. Many will probably be abandoned leaving a hellish nuclear nightmare for our future generations.

    Financial wise, the cost of building new nukes on the coast will surely be much higher now if they take in to account current SL rise predicted.

    The problem is this prediction, I can predict, is uncertain and low ball so making it obvious that this is the wrong path to pursue.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’re correct Mark #16-the errors of judgment are accumulating. I mean, Monbiot fought the good fight so well, for so long, and so pissed off the Right that I have great reluctance in dismissing him as some sort of apostate. But, in my opinion, he’s made a really big error here, not just in dismissing the dangers of nuclear, playing up its efficacy and denigrating that of renewables, but, even worse, playing right into the denialists’ hands. I’ve seen several hardcore denialists crowing over this Damascene conversion, already, and it’s nauseating. As for Lovelock, I was just referring to his enthusiasm for nuclear, not his, eminently sensible in my opinion, support for biochar.

  27. Here is another great article, thanks for that !

    I agree with you in saying that America has better to do than invest in new reactors for the moment.

    Nuclear accounts for 20 percent of the electricity in the US. By working massively on energy efficiency and conservation, America could slash its energy consumption and achieve similar figures to Europe and Japan where people consume around 125 kWh per day per habitant, where currently, it is twice this figure.

    This way, nuclear could be more important in the electricity mix, while no reactor could be built.

    This is a win-win situation I believe.

    Keep up the good work !

  28. Prokaryotes says:

    China’s nuclear energy policy: ‘Build, baby, build!’
    Beijing calls for safety review, but economic pressure won’t let it slow down for long