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About That Nuclear Revival...

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As the Senate gets ready to examine energy and climate legislation, America's most serious welfare dependent is back at the taxpayer trough again. Unsatisfied by a set of federal loan guarantees, subsidies, and other trinkets and baubles that would make the greediest gold digger blush, the nuclear complex is demanding still more. Passage of any legislation that requires those who emit carbon to pay for the carbon sinks they preempt will, appropriately and unavoidably, mean a competitive advantage for nuclear power. If carbon permits sell for $30 per ton of CO2, as the EPA estimates they would under the House bill, the cost of coal-fired electricity vs. nuclear would go up $.03 per kilowatt hour-- a healthy boost.

But that's not enough. Instead Republican senators like Lamar Alexander are calling for a federal commitment to build 100 new nuclear plants. It appears that what is envisaged is that the taxpayers actually pay for building these plants -- but not that the taxpayers would ever be repaid from the sales of electricity. No, the profits from this investment would flow to shareholders in big utility and nuclear companies. This is not even a bailout -- I guess you could call it a bail-forward. And it would be very expensive.

A new report  prepared for the Consumer Federation of America suggests that if we were to build 100 new nuclear plants, and they actually ended up producing electricity, the power generated would cost Americans between $1.9 and $4 trillion dollars in extra utility bills, with the power being billed at $.12 to $.20 per kilowatt hour.

In further bad news for the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that eighteen of the country's existing nuclear plants haven't set aside enough money to pay for decommissioning their reactor shells after their useful life ends. Recent estimates indicate that the cost of dismantling existing nukes has increased by $4.6 billion, while the amount set aside to decommission them has declined by $4.4 billion because of loss of investment value.

Even the Business Round Table, in its recent study calling for major policy initiatives in the climate arena, conceded that in the absence of much larger subsidies than are currently available to nuclear, the most we can realistically expect is to replace the existing fleet of nuclear power plants as they are retired -- nuclear simply is not going to be a bigger part of our energy future unless we just keep throwing more money at it.

But there has always been an interesting question -- is the problem nuclear technology per se, or is it the nuclear industry and its culture of welfare dependence -- something that in other contexts is referred to as the soft-bigotry of low expectations? If we really made nuclear stand on its own, would it learn to build plants that make economic sense? It appears we will never find out.

Instead we are witnessing the collapse in Europe of a much bruited -- and publicly subsidized -- nuclear revival. This is the month that Finland's Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant was scheduled to go on-line, the vanguard of a new generation of safe, affordable nuclear reactors. Instead, Olkiluoto is at least three and a half years late and more than 50 percent over budget. A similar plant being built in France is 20 percent over budget and struggling to stay on schedule only 18 months after breaking ground. In Britain, where the nuclear utility is owned by the French utility EDF, there is no sign of new orders being placed, and EDF is complaining that it can't afford to build new plants if it must compete with renewables.

Amory Lovins has acerbically summarized how we should respond to the hoopla about allegedly reviving nuclear power:

But in due course, the aging advocates of the half-century-old reactor concepts that never made it to market will retire and die, their credulous young devotees will relearn painful lessons lately forgotten, and the whole nuclear business will complete its slow death of an incurable attack of market forces. Meanwhile, the rest of us shouldn't be distracted from getting on with the winning investments that make sense, make money, and really do solve the energy, climate, and proliferation problems, led by business for profit.

The nuclear industry's recent whining that it must never, ever be asked to stand on its own confirms that Amory's got it right about the "incurable attack of market forces."  And yet, many in Congress appear impervious to this logic. Since most of the advocates of the "build a hundred nukes" caucus in Congress are certified "free market" advocates, this seems oddly inconsistent. Perhaps the way to get them to reconsider is to call the industry's bluff. If the public's money is going to finance the next generation of nuclear power plants, provide for the waste disposal, protect against terrorism, guarantee the risks, and overpay for whatever electricity is generated, then perhaps we should recognize nuclear power for what it is -- a very expensive and socialist way of making electricity that, in the real world, is actually paid for and controlled by the government. It's no coincidence that the one nation widely cited as proof that nuclear power works is France with its socialist and hugely money-losing power sector.

University of Greenwich Professor of Energy Studies Stephen Thomas recently pointed out that to duplicate the French model in the U.S. "you would essentially have to nationalize your electric utilities and have all new power plant siting decisions emanate from the White House."

So why don't the cheerleaders for nukes like Lamar Alexander and Mike Crapo offer the only real nuclear option and see how many votes it gets: an explicitly socialist electricity model where plants are sited, built, paid for, and operated by the federal government (with profits, if any, used to repay our investment)?

Somehow, I don't think that idea would have many takers. But it would be a more honest approach than the one that Congress is currently being peddled (and that it seems likely to approve).

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