The latest sorties in the war over nuclear power
There have been several good entries in the never-ending nuclear debate lately. I’m pulling several together into one post, so all the vicious arguing can center in one comment thread. Fun!
In a long, detailed, and devastating cover story in The Nation, Christian Parenti asks, “What Nuclear Renaissance?” Peeling away the hype and PR, he discovers that there’s much less than meets the eye:
This much seems clear: a handful of firms might soak up huge federal subsidies and build one or two overpriced plants. While a new administration might tighten regulations, public safety will continue to be menaced by problems at new as well as older plants. But there will be no massive nuclear renaissance. Talk of such a renaissance, however, helps keep people distracted, their minds off the real project of developing wind, solar, geothermal and tidal kinetics to build a green power grid.
The Congressional Budget Office recently released a report on the costs of new nuclear plants [PDF] in light of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (which contained beaucoup subsidies). On his blog Green Energy War, ex-California Energy Commissioner John Geesman has three great posts digging into the report — one, two, three. Here he summarizes the top-line conclusions:
• In the absence of both CO2 charges and EPAct incentives, conventional coal and natural gas technologies would most likely be the least expensive source of new electricity generating capacity.
• CO2 charges of about $45 per metric ton would probably make nuclear competitive with conventional coal and natural gas technologies as a source of new baseload capacity, even without EPAct incentives.
• At CO2 charges below $45, natural gas is probably a more economic source of baseload capacity than coal. CO2 charges would have to be less than $5 per metric ton for coal to be the lowest cost source of new capacity.
• EPAct incentives, even in the absence of CO2 charges, would probably make nuclear a competitive technology for a few of the 30 plants currently being proposed.
• Regardless of the incentives provided by EPAct, uncertainties about future construction costs or natural gas prices could deter investment in nuclear. In particular, if construction costs “proved to be as high as the average cost of nuclear plants built in the 1970s and 1980s, or if natural gas prices fell back to the levels seen in the 1990s, nuclear would not be competitive.”
• CO2 charges “would probably have to exceed $80 per metric ton in order for nuclear technology to remain competitive under either of those circumstances.”
Geesman deems the report too optimistic about costs.
Speaking of those costs, the News & Observer reports:
The estimated cost of new nuclear power plants has tripled in the past few years, with projections now hitting $6 billion to $9 billion per reactor. Cost estimates are expected to continue escalating. Soaring costs make the prospect of new nuclear power even harder to sell to a public that will ultimately pay for new plants through rate increases.
Meanwhile, BBC reports that costs will rise further as high-grade uranium declines and mining for it becomes more costly and energy-intensive.
Obviously I’m not unbiased, but in my experience the basic pro-nuke argument tends to be repeated over and over again, almost verbatim, despite obvious weaknesses. Take this one in Discover. You’ve got all the typical ingredients:
- The assertion that enviros are coming around to nuclear power, supported by citing James Lovelock and industry shill Patrick Moore. (If greens are really coming around, shouldn’t there be some new examples by now?)
- The deceptive framing that our choice is between coal and nuclear.
- The hand-wavey assertion that renewable sources can’t supply a substantial percentage of our power because … they don’t currently supply a substantial percentage of our power. Of course it’s arguable how much and how fast renewables could scale up, but the striking feature of these pro-nuke articles is they don’t even make a pretense of addressing the issue seriously. It’s “renewables are 1 percent and intermittent!” and that’s it. As though building a nuke plant a week is no biggie.
- The careful avoidance of the main argument against nuclear: its crippling cost and inability to attract private investment.
And finally, last but not least, don’t miss a brief, pointed, and utterly devastating article from Amory Lovins, Imran Sheikh, and Alex Markevich: “Forget Nuclear.” I won’t start quoting parts, ’cause I’ll end up quoting the whole thing. Suffice to say, micropower and efficiency are kicking ass and attracting enormous private investment; nuclear is attracting none. And there’s a reason for that. Read the whole thing.