Opinion

Radioactive Distractions

I recently testified at a Department of Energy (DOE) workshop on modernizing the electrical grid for the 21st century at which some prominent industry and governmental leaders made pitches for a future grid with significant generation from nuclear power. My reaction: Really? Perpetuating the idea that nuclear power will play a major, or even significant role in the nation’s energy future is not only wishful thinking in my opinion, it is a major distraction. Moving forward with real low-carbon solutions, beginning with a major national commitment to increased energy efficiency and renewable power, is a far more important public investment.

Seen that movie already and it was bad the last time

We’ve experienced this nuclear boosterism before. Nuclear power, despite its record, is part of the President’s “all of the above” energy strategy, a politically calibrated, please-everyone approach that ultimately can hinder the transition away from high carbon resources we urgently need to make in order to address climate change. I understand the political imperative behind such rhetoric, but mourn the confusion it sows and the waste of time and resources it will promote.

Another nuclear adventure diverts billions of dollars of public and ratepayer funding into what is a technological bad choice, compared with lower cost renewable alternatives that come without the hazards of nuclear waste isolation and nuclear proliferation concerns. A renewable future demands a flexible grid, able to adjust to match load and demand instantaneously. Inflexible nuclear power (which has to run all the time and cannot ramp up or down to match other generation on the grid) is worse than unhelpful in creating a renewable energy future.

What is the opposite of “Cleaner, Cheaper, Faster and Safer? It’s not a trick question.

Nuclear proponents today are attacking wind energy because it is too cheap. Their complaint is that renewable power (and lower cost natural gas) is forcing the shutdown of nuclear plants which do not pencil out financially at lower electricity costs. Merchant plants – not run by investor owned or public utilities – are especially vulnerable. Several have been shuttered in the last few years, and more are expected to soon join them. Nuclear utilities are campaigning to eliminate the production and investment tax credits that have created a thriving renewable energy industry so their costlier, riskier, dirtier and more dangerous power can compete. Subsidies are bad, they say, as long as they are not ours.

This argument is intellectually disreputable. No industry is more subsidized than nuclear power, which would not even exist if it wasn’t for government R&D and a seemingly endless array of financial incentives such as loan guarantees, outright subsidies, and even catastrophic accident liability limits. Ratepayer financing schemes that might make Bernie Madoff blush – especially the notorious “Construction Work in Progress (CWIP)” – dun ratepayers today to finance nuclear construction for facilities that may never go on line or which are delayed for years and plagued with relentless cost overruns. From an equity standpoint CWIP flunks every test. People who will never get any power will pay for constructing a nuclear plant, while future ratepayers who never received any power will pay to isolate and guard nuclear waste for centuries. It also discourages any serious effort at cost containment because utility customers continue to fill the coffers if things go wrong… with a tasty return on investment tacked on. Apparently the generous loan guarantees provided by the federal government are insufficient to persuade private investment to float the nuclear boat. No, nuclear utilities need to get elbow deep in their customers’ pockets to even keep the industry on life support.

New and Improved… Not

The so-called “nuclear renaissance” is fueled by the same kind of sketchy promises the industry failed to deliver on at its outset (most famously that it would be, “too cheap to meter”). Despite all the talk about the “new” nuclear technologies, including such things as factory built modular reactors and “inherently safe” (beware all such claims) designs, the economics and technology of the industry are stuck in a 1970s time warp. After the current decades-long industry slump, there are only two forges in the world (Korea and Japan) that make reactor vessels. Rather than building “new” technologies, we are still building the same familiar pressurized water reactors, with the same technological flaws at the same massive scale at the same breathtakingly high costs, with the same old costly construction delays. It takes a lot of gall to present nuclear power as something new and different and needed for climate mitigation. It’s like trying to bring back smoking as a healthy lifestyle endorsed by doctors.

Even in the industry, the hyperventilating euphoria over the promise of small modular nuclear plants is fading, as reality sets in on costs, the lack of a supply chain, the shortage of trained nuclear engineers and others concerns, such as the lack of an international liability regime. According to the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, this failure alone, which could lead to an inconclusive legal free-for-all in the event of an accident, virtually kills off any sort of international market before it even gets started.

Still ignored is the back end of the fuel cycle where costs, such as nuclear decommissioning, come with astronomical price tags. Industry estimates to decommission the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in southern California hover above $4 billion. That figure is close to the amount California has set aside to decommission all its nuclear plants, including the massive Diablo Canyon facility on the central coast. And that’s if you buy the estimates. It could be even worse, and if history is a guide, almost certainly will be. PG&E’s tiny, 1960s vintage Humboldt Bay nuclear reactor is expected to cost a staggering $1.02 billion to decommission. And this is for a 63 megawatt reactor built below grade as the new small modular reactors are proposed to be. Decommissioning costs are rarely if ever mentioned when reactor economics are discussed. They should be.

Also unresolved are a myriad of safety issues common to pressurized water reactors such as the near universal failure of steam generators at pressurized water reactors, and the very real threat of hydrogen explosions such as that experienced at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Two years after the accident there radiation continues to pour into the environment.

I could go on and on. Nuclear proliferation concerns alone merit their own article.

In 1985, Forbes labeled U.S. nuclear power “the largest managerial disaster in business history.” Are we poised to repeat the same mistakes, using climate remediation as the excuse?

Why should we? We have an embarrassment of geographically diverse renewable energy resource riches that are cleaner, cheaper, faster and safer to develop. We are creating vibrant new industries to exploit them and modernizing our grid because of them making it both more reliable and resilient in the process. These technologies stabilize electricity costs because their fuel is free. The economies of scale to drive their capital costs down have now largely been created and they are poised to compete head to head with polluting conventional resources (in some cases they already do).

Let’s not get distracted by radioactive pipe dreams. The climate clock is ticking and we have neither the time nor the money to waste on recycled bad ideas.

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