McKibben on nuclear power


in Economics, Politics, The environment

I routinely give speeches about global warming, and so I know from experience that one of the first three or four questions will be about nuclear power. A man – always a man – approaches the microphone and asked with barely concealed glee if building more reactors isn’t the “solution” to the problem. His thought, usually, is that I am an environmentalist, and hence I must oppose nuclear power, and hence aren’t I a moron. Which I may be, but in this case nuclear power mainly serves to illustrate the point I’m trying to make about the difficulty of changing direction quickly. It’s quite true that nuclear power plants don’t seem as scary as they did a generation ago – not that they’ve gotten safer, but other things have gotten nastier. I mean, if a nuclear plant has an accident, it’s bad news, but if you operate a coal-fired plant exactly according to the instructions, it melts the ice caps and burns the forests. Still, nuclear plants are frightening, in part because new ones spill so much red ink. A series of recent studies have found that the capital costs of new conventional atomic reactors have gotten so high that, even before you factor in fuel and operations, you’re talking seventeen to twenty-two cents per kilowatt-hour – which is two or three times what Americans currently pay for electricity.

And that’s if the plant gets built on time. “Delays would run the costs higher,” as one study put it, and nuclear plants are always delayed. Consider, for instance, what happened in Finland, where the country (thinking ahead, in a Scandinavian way) decided in 2002 to build a new nuclear power plant in an effort to cut carbon emissions. The New York Times called the choice prescient, and the right-wing Heritage Foundation heralded it as rational, but a more accurate adjective would have been pricey. It was supposed to be completed in 2009 but now won’t come online until at least 2012, and the original budget has gone up by more than half to $6.2 billion. A reporter visiting the site found the interior of the containment vessel “was lined with a solid layer of steel that was crisscrossed with ropy welds. On the surface someone had scrawled the word ‘Titanic.'” As a result of troubles like that, a 2008 report from Moody’s Investors Services concluded that any utility that decided to build a reactor could harm its credit ratings for many years. A Florida utility, in fact, predicted that even a six-month delay in its building plans could add $500 million in interest costs. And this was all before the great credit crunch at the end of the Bush administration. Bottom line: building enough conventional nuclear reactors to eliminate a tenth of the threat of global warming would cost about $8 trillion, not to mention running electricity prices through the roof. You’d need to open a new reactor every two weeks for the next forty years and, as the analyst Joe Romm points out, you’d have to open ten new Yucca Mountains to store the waste. Meanwhile, uranium prices have gone up by a factor of six this decade, because we’re – you guessed it – running out of the easy-to-find stuff and miners are having to dig deeper.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. 2010. p. 57-8 (softcover, italics in original)


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 23, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant (Finnish: Olkiluodon ydinvoimalaitos) is on Olkiluoto Island, which is on the shore of the Gulf of Bothnia in the municipality of Eurajoki in western Finland. It is one of Finland’s two nuclear power plants, the other being the two-unit VVER Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant. The plant is owned and operated by Teollisuuden Voima (TVO), a subsidiary of Pohjolan Voima.

The Olkiluoto plant consists of two Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) with 860 MWe each. Unit 3, an EPR reactor, is still under construction, but various problems with workmanship and supervision have created costly delays which have been the subject of an inquiry by the Finnish nuclear regulator Säteilyturvakeskus (STUK). In December 2012, Areva estimated that the full cost of building the reactor will be about €8.5 billion, or almost three times the delivery price of €3 billion. A license for a fourth reactor to be built at the site was granted by the Finnish parliament in July 2010, but discontinued by the goverment in September 2014. TVO has the option to reapply for the license in the future.

According to Financial Times in December 2014 construction of the Olkiluoto plant has descended into farce as it is currently expected to open nine years late and several billions of euros over budget.

oleh January 2, 2015 at 2:35 pm

I am also one of those males who had wondered about the use of nuclear power to overcome the use of fossil fuels. Bill McKibbens analysis of the high cost sheds some light.

Are we able to draw on presently constructed nuclear facilities during this period of transition away from fossil fuels and to renewable forms of energy?

Milan January 2, 2015 at 5:24 pm

One wildcard people often point to is the idea that different reactor technologies will somehow make fission-based electricity safe and cheap. People talk about breeder reactors, thorium reactors, small reactors, etc.

There are a few responses to this. For one, breeder reactors have generally been expensive, accident-prone failures so far. Small reactors and thorium reactors may be a long way off, and offer few benefits.

Regarding existing reactors – such as the ones in Ontario – given the extreme cost of building them, it probably makes sense to keep them running for as long as doing so is safe and reasonably affordable.

oleh January 3, 2015 at 2:44 pm

What do you think about China using and developing nuclear energy to reduce its use of coal

Milan January 3, 2015 at 7:15 pm

It’s a mixed thing.

For one, China continues to expand its nuclear weapon arsenal – a process that will be aided by having more civilian nuclear power stations.

Also, if nuclear really is a much more expensive option than conservation and renewables, China may receive less benefit from nuclear investments than from other options.

Another factor is the inevitability of accidents. They are obviously problematic in themselves, but they also produce huge swings in public and elite opinion. A major program of investment could be derailed by such an event.

On the other hand, there may be a non-zero chance that China finds a way to build nuclear power stations affordably.

. March 29, 2017 at 10:40 pm

Westinghouse Files For Bankruptcy, In Blow To Nuclear Power

Westinghouse Electric Co, a unit of Japanese conglomerate Toshiba Corp, filed for bankruptcy on Wednesday, hit by billions of dollars of cost overruns at four nuclear reactors under construction in the U.S. Southeast. The bankruptcy casts doubt on the future of the first new U.S. nuclear power plants in three decades, which were scheduled to begin producing power as soon as this week, but are now years behind schedule. The four reactors are part of two projects known as V.C. Summer in South Carolina, which is majority owned by SCANA Corp, and Vogtle in Georgia, which is owned by a group of utilities led by Southern Co. Costs for the projects have soared due to increased safety demands by U.S. regulators, and also due to significantly higher-than-anticipated costs for labor, equipment and components. Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse said it hopes to use bankruptcy to isolate and reorganize around its “very profitable” nuclear fuel and power plant servicing businesses from its money-losing construction operation. Westinghouse said in a court filing it has secured $800 million in financing from Apollo Investment Corp, an affiliate of Apollo Global Management, to fund its core businesses during its reorganization. Westinghouse’s nuclear services business is expected to continue to perform profitably over the course of the bankruptcy and eventually be sold by Toshiba, people familiar with the matter said. When regulators in Georgia and South Carolina approved the construction of Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactors in 2009, it was meant to be the start of renewed push to develop U.S. nuclear power. However, a flood of cheap natural gas from shale, the lack of U.S. legislation to curb carbon emissions and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan dampened enthusiasm for nuclear power. Toshiba had acquired Westinghouse in 2006 for $5.4 billion. It expected to build dozens of its new AP1000 reactors — which were hailed as safer, quicker to construct and more compact — creating a pipeline of work for its maintenance division.

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