Nuclear, pt. 4: Cost

Many studies have been done analyzing the cost of installing, running and maintaining nuclear power plants (NPP’s), and many articles and blogs have been written arguing for or against nuclear using cost as an argument; most articles that lean heavily on the cost argument are trying to explain why nuclear isn’t feasible. I will talk briefly about that but then I’m going to attack this issue from a slightly different angle. 

Opponents of nuclear power love to repeat the generalization that “nuclear is too expensive” or “renewables are cheaper.” These ideas are incredibly over-simplistic and in no way reflect the realities of the cost of installing nuclear. First of all, yes, building a new NPP is quite expensive up front, and it takes a significant amount of time to recoup the expenses. ALL expenses are considered when planning for nuclear, however, from initial construction to operation and maintenance, to waste storage and disposal and plant decommissioning. These costs are a fraction of the price nuclear power is sold at. Capital costs are quite high, while fuel, operation and maintenance are relatively low and easily competitive in the energy market. (This is all incredibly well-explained in This 23 minute video by Professor David Ruzic at University of Illinois).

Opponents will lobby against nuclear power and then try to blame bureaucracy and regulation for the extremely high startup costs, as if they aren’t a significant part of the cause of that to begin with (in other words, when cost is the last argument they have to fall back on because science proves nuclear is the cleanest, safest and most efficient source of energy, they’re essentially arguing against themselves). After capital, nuclear power is quite competitive in the energy market, and most often cheaper, with the exception of markets with access to abundant and cheap fossil fuels.

It also needs to be said that “renewable” energy sources are often heavily subsidized, and likely would not even be installed to begin with if that were not the case. Wind and solar are “cheaper than nuclear” when we deliberately don’t factor in subsidies, natural gas backup, inefficiency and strain on the grid, etc. Really, California and Germany are shining examples of just how cheap “renewable” energy is; they have some of the highest energy prices in their markets for exactly these reasons.

Now, cost considerations for different energy sources will be debated all day long, but if you really want to know the truth about it, look to the NEI and similar industry bodies that regulate and track such things, don’t just repeat what you hear on a random blog, including this one. My personal argument for nuclear, in regard to cost, is this:

How much will it cost us to NOT go with nuclear?

What are the implications if we don’t use nuclear power? Many people would like to believe that wind and solar can replace it. Wind and solar don’t have the capacity to sustain a grid, day and night, 24/7. They have less than half the lifespan of NPPs, and for the same amount of power generated produce much more waste (many points which I have already covered here). Anywhere you have wind and solar, you have natural gas backing it up. The whole point here is to move away from fossil fuels, is it not?

Germany has proven that not using nuclear energy means burning more fossil fuels, and California is looking to prove the same. As I have also mentioned in the link above, the WHO estimates that over 7 million people die worldwide every year as a direct result of fossil fuel pollution. Relying instead on nuclear energy means we can literally save over 7 million lives every year.

Nuclear also doesn’t emit CO2, which has been proven time and time again to be a greenhouse gas; human burning of carbon for energy has overloaded our atmosphere and our oceans at an unsustainable rate. There is no refuting this fact, just plain denial of it. Acidification of the oceans is a significant problem that I think most people know about and want to change; the problem is that without supporting nuclear energy, there are currently no other viable solutions. as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels, the global climate will continue to change in a way that is not good for living creatures. Climate change and resulting disaster response is estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. alone.

I’m trying not to get too deep into the reasons wind and solar won’t cut it, as I’ve already gone over that in other posts, but reliance on wind and solar is reliance on natural gas.

The bottom line is that if we don’t continue to support nuclear power for the price of a few bucks up front, we will pay for it for generations to come in the form of millions of lives and billions of dollars in resources being lost every year at the hands of fossil fuel pollution and CO2 emissions.

Is that really something that we can afford?