08/24/2010 03:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sorry, But Nukes Still Don't Pencil Out

One topic that always seems to attract lots of blog comments is my contention that the present generation of pressurized-vessel nuclear power plants makes so little economic sense that we shouldn't even need to recognize the safety and proliferation issues before deciding to end all public support and subsidies for them. And once those have been ended,  the pressurized-vessel nuclear revival would simply blow away like a tumbleweed in a hurricane.

The latest evidence is in Florida's capital, where Florida Power and Light and Progress Energy are asking the state Public Service Commission for another $200 million in advance payments to cover the cost of four nuclear reactors that are unlikely ever to be completed.  These kinds of advance payments are exactly the kind of financial shenanigans that brought the last nuclear-construction boom to an end, leaving utility ratepayers with billions of wasted dollars in costs.

The Florida PSC has already approved $269 million in such advance payments.  The delivery date for the reactors in question has been pushed back five years -- remember, one of them, at Turkey Point, is likely to be virtually underneath the Atlantic Ocean (because of sea level rise) long before its useful lifetime is over. And FPL now concedes that it has not yet decided whether it will build these plants at all -- it simply wants to keep spending rate payers' money on them.

What's more, the reactor design has never been approved as hurricane safe! The utilities in question have told the PSC that they can afford these reactors only if they get enormous rate increases -- which the PSC has rejected. (FPL wanted $1.3 billion; in January the PSC gave it only $75.4 million.)  Westinghouse-Toshiba, the manufacturer, delayed promised delivery dates for three years because the design has not yet been approved for safety.

Meanwhile, the cost of solar, the price of natural gas, and the opportunities to reduce electricity demand with higher performance buildings and appliances keep getting more and more favorable. The bottom line? Florida simply doesn't need these reactors, and Florida customers can't afford them.

But this is not only a Florida problem. Pressurized-vessel nuclear reactors are, quite simply, one of the most expensive ways to keep a ton of carbon from going into the atmosphere yet devised. That doesn't mean we shouldn't fund genuine research into genuinely new nuclear fuel cycles to see whether one of them can be safe, affordable, and proliferation-proof. But we shouldn't be pouring tens of billions of dollars of ratepayer and taxpayer loan guarantees and advance construction payments into the pressurized reactors of the type we are building today. Today's nuclear technology just doesn't make sense.

Imagine how much clean energy (and jobs!) we could create if we instead invested those subsidies into helping buildings get more energy-efficient.