Nuclear Reactors: Keep Building ‘Em

While accidents grab headlines, they are in truth, few and far between. Nuclear power is the safest, best hope for reducing the pollution caused by fossil fuels. Pro or con?

Pro: Fueling a Clean Energy Future

Nuclear energy must be part of a low-carbon portfolio as the world seeks to meet electricity demand with cleaner sources of energy. Nuclear energy produces electricity for one in every five American homes and businesses. It is the only zero-carbon-emissions technology capable of providing reliable electricity on a massive scale.

The U.S. nuclear industry’s commitment to safety is reflected in two facts: In each of the past 10 years, 104 reactors in 31 states have produced electricity 24/7 at 90 percent or greater efficiency, with a commitment to layer-upon-layer of safety that exceeds federal requirements.

Nuclear plants alone won’t improve our air quality but coupled with renewable energy sources, they are a sustainable energy resource that will produce electricity for 60 years or more. As the auto industry develops electric vehicles, using carbon-free nuclear energy to charge them is a win-win for our environment and national security. One nuclear energy facility could charge more than 1.8 million electric cars each night and power mass transit, homes, and businesses during the day.

Public support for nuclear energy has decreased somewhat since the March accident in Japan, yet twice as many Americans favor nuclear energy than oppose it. (According to a 2011 Luntz Global survey, 50 percent favored, 21 percent opposed, and 29 percent were neutral.) Eighty percent of residents who live within 10 miles of nuclear-energy facilities favor the use of nuclear energy, and 50 percent strongly favor it, according to a Bisconti Research/Quest Global Research Group survey. That’s particularly true in communities in Georgia and South Carolina, where new, advanced reactor projects already have added nearly 3,500 jobs.

Con: A Bad Investment All Around

Nuclear power is inherently dangerous and when things go wrong, they go catastrophically wrong—but that’s not why Wall Street has abandoned it. Nuclear power is prohibitively expensive and most corporations will only build if the American taxpayer assumes the risk for their nuclear investments.

Even before the triple meltdown at Fukushima, Wall Street was wary of investing in nuclear power. Moody’s called nuclear power a “bet-the-farm risk” while Citibank called it a “corporation killer.” MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, found that building new reactors did not make economic sense.

Since Fukushima, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland have decided to phase out nuclear power. And Siemens, the largest engineering firm in Europe, is getting out of nuclear power entirely; renewable energy is its strongest line of business.

Our best bet for reducing pollution from coal plants is energy efficiency and renewable energy. These solutions can be deployed more quickly and affordably than wasting billions on a new nuclear reactor. In the past two years, even in tough economic times, the U.S. installed more than 15,000 megawatts of wind power; there hasn’t been a new nuclear plant ordered and completed in the U.S. since 1973.

Wind turbines do not melt down, they aren’t targeted by terrorists, and they can’t be used to make nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. The same cannot be said for nuclear power. We can shut down dirty coal plants without ever building another nuclear reactor. In fact, we’ve already begun.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

John Busby

The NEI needs to admit that loss-making nuclear power is only affordable by a state. Because of the 15% private stake in EdF it has to publish annual reports so we know that it is in financial meltdown and has been forced to sell prime assets to reduce its growing indebtedness while making it worse by the loss of ca. Eur 5 billion in revenue thereby.

It was losing money before a forced sale of 25% of its generation on the free market and the figures make little provision for decommissioning, waste management, and upgrading or replacement of its aging fleet.

Its replacement programme is inadequate and GdF Suez has declined to invest in an EPR at Penly, while the Flamanville new build is delayed until 2016.

Worse, its regulator, ASN describes it as operation in a "degraded mode" from a safety point of view. Do we want this in the UK?

scoday

"Wind turbines do not melt down, they aren’t targeted by terrorists, and they can’t be used to make nuclear weapons or dirty bombs."

They are also not a reliable source of base load generation. Not now, and not in the foreseeable future. Please stop dreaming and contending that we replace base load generation with "unreliables."

Mark Goldes

A solar superstorm can collapse critical power grids for years, worldwide.

NOAA sees a threat of such storms for the next five years, peaking in 2013.

Nuclear plants without grid power for a month are meltdown candidates.

See the Aesop Institute website to understand the implications and what can be done to prevent nuclear nightmares.

harrywr2

All energy resources make sense under some set of circumstances somewhere.

Saying that one energy source 'makes sense nowhere' based on statements that someone made a determination that it didn't make sense in a specific set of circumstances is just misleading.

Solar power doesn't make sense in the arctic. Does that mean solar power doesn't make sense at the equator?

Hydro-power doesn't work very well in deserts...does that mean hydro power is a poor choice for Canadian's?

Nuclear is clearly expensive if the price of steam coal one is paying is $14/ton. Unfortunately, for most of the world $100/ton is a good price for steam coal.

Jon Wharf

Riccio launches the sadly familiar salvoes of doom-laden adjectives in his attempt to spread fear and despair. The anti-nuclear groups have very little of substance to argue against nuclear power and largely resort to innuendo and occasional fabrication (eg. Italy has no nuclear power to phase out).

The risk that nuclear constructors face is not a normal business risk. It is the political risk that the government will capriciously change the rules--on construction, operation, regulation, or any number of other features of the business landscape that are under state power. That is the key factor that worries investors and makes the use of loan guarantees desirable--it brings the risk of government action back to the government.

Riccio skates lightly over the undoubted fact that wind power is more expensive--in terms of delivered power--than nuclear power, and per project it is slower to build also. It takes more resources and requires more backup. So leveling any of these charges against nuclear should count even more strongly for wind (and stronger still for solar, incidentally).

Riccio wants to throw out one of the strongest tools we have to increase carbon-free electricity and make a real dent in fossil fuel use. It seems that the climate isn't really very important to him when nuclear is being discussed.

mike conley

Jim Riccio,
The new generation of nuclear reactors coming online (molten salt reactors) can consume the spent fuel that has been stockpiled by the world's existing reactors. If you would like to shut down the entire nuclear industry and run the world on renewables, that's fine. More power to you. But I have one question: What do you propose we do with our existing nuclear waste?

SteveK9

Fukushima is consistently described as a catastrophe even though it killed no one and I predict the health effects will not even be measurable.

Nuclear is the safest energy generation technology and will become even safer as new plants are built. http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/deaths-per-twh-for-all-energy-sources.html

Wind and solar are diffuse, unreliable sources of energy that cause far more environmental damage due to their use of materials and the large areas of land needed. They will never power an advanced industrial civilization.

Colin Megson

Greenpeace should come onside with the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).

They are hundreds of times safer than Gen III (III+) PWRs and half the price. Watt-for-watt, they use a fraction of the steel and concrete that wind turbines use--this is even more accentuated when you consider the permutations of storage, smart grids, and back-up generators, to cover the intermittency problems of renewables.

At £150 million for a modular 100 MWe LFTR, 400 of them would generate all of the UK's electricity needs at a cost of £60 billion. This could save £50 billion from the £110 billion sum Chris Huhne plans to spend, meeting our carbon targets via the renewables-efficiency route.

There's a campaign on 38Degrees for "UK Manufacture of LFTRs". Anyone reading this should vote for it.

george

I am a near convert to nuclear power after decades of being against it. I see the potential, particularly for the developing world.

But I am still stuck on the financing. They are too damn expensive and I am adamantly opposed to more corporate welfare. Unless nuke companies plan on sharing revenue, they can find their own way to pay for construction, insurance, and decommissioning

Allan M Salzberg MD PhD

Even the former founder of Greenpeace favors nuclear. A 2008 D.O.E. signed by all National Laboratory directors including Dr Chu stated that nuclear power is essential for sustainable energy. In particular we will need 4th generation fast neutron reactors. These will let us use virtually all the energy in fuel rods rather than the 2% now. After pyroprocessing, the fission fractions are removed, and the remainder recycled. During this time the long-lived actinide and Pu are destroyed. The resultant wastes are 2% and only need isolation for 300-500 years. Our present wastes can produce all of America's electricity for 500 years. A problem morphed into a treasure. With this technology there is enough uranium and thorium to power America for aeons.

The DOE Reports can be downloaded from www.allansalzberg.com under Documents.

It is pages 21-27 in "Energy Futures." One candidate is the PRISM-S reactor using liquid sodium and is based on ERB II prototype. For safety research the coolant to ERB II simply turned itself off.

Wind mills are expensive and worse intermittent and would need an NG power plant in standby mode (using natural gas).

Vern Cornell

Dr. Salzberg,
Please go back to Colin's comment at 10 a.m Oct 7 and comment on this information. Is LFTR available, soon, at half Gen3 reactors, and 100MW? This will be truly marvelous, if true. Thanks...I'd vote for you if I lived in ID.

Brian Wang

China and South Korea have costs of $29-35 per megawatt hour for nuclear. Half the price of the USA and Europe. China will start exporting nuclear reactors in 2013.

New powerplants of any kind are mainly being built in China and emerging economies. When you have 9% gdp growth you have 6-9% energy growth. China passed the US in electricity generation and usage in 2010. The US is building zero to 1.5% more energy each year. This is why China will have more wind and solar as well. China is building more energy everything. It is also why China is building 27 nuclear reactors now and will ramp up. They have national industrial and energy plans that go out decades. They plan to close the nuclear fuel cycle with offsite reprocessing and breeder reactors and to use uranium from phosphate. the plan is to go to 250,000 tons per year of uranium with full recycling of fuel. They also have a molten salt thorium reactor in the works.

The Middle eastern countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia will buy their reactors from China. The US and European countries will buy 4th and 5th generation reactors from China in the 2020-2030 timeframe unless Hyperion Power Generation and some other smaller innovative companies can get enough going with modular reactors.

The Greenpeace yacking will have no influence in China because the leadership has engineering degrees and business knowledge and knows the Greenpeace line is wrong. It is only loser countries and misguided peoples who are already screwing themselves by adopting regulations and policies that make the right technical choice too expensive. China and South Korea are not half the western price because of cheap labor; it is because of fewer delays in the regulations and other unnecessary costs that do not improve safety.

JM Hatch

The whole nuclear business is built on fooling the public. For example pro-nuclear EU businesses are funding RiskProtec CI--a safety assessment of existing reactor buildings for aircraft crash "impacts" only. The outcome is intended as a fraud; everyone knows airplanes have no chance of penetrating thick concrete shells, Both planes could not even knock down the far weaker structures of the WTC Twin Towers by "impact".

911 @ the WTC shows the real risk is fuel fires (a 747 carries 214 tons of jet fuel, A380 carries 370 tons). A massive fire will destroy all the auxiliaries necessary to keep reactors cooled (ala Fukushima). Requests that the study include the fire risk are ignored. The report will be used to fool the public over the safety risks, because the owners don't want to spend money to fix these risk. Safety regulators are afraid to address these risks because if the plants are shut down, then they too will become unemployed.

As another example, 6 years before Fukushima, using IAEA methods, the Japanese operator said PSA studies showed the risk of a nuclear release for a single reactor was 1 in 10 million. After the accident, their first action was not dealing with the accident, it was removing this statement from their website (fortunately it still exist on web archive servers). Trust businessmen? Trust government officials? Not on your life.

cliff

There is merit to both sides of the debate.

I believe that new nuc plants are safe and have sufficient safeguards to avoid any accidents, However, I truly believe the focus on the nuclear industry is wrong. There must be a resolution to the spent fuel that poses the real hazards at every nuclear plant and the financial inability to close aging power plants that are currently getting routine license extentions only because the industry is unable/unwilling to put up the capital to close them.

The industry must resolve those issues before any new plants are built.

John Dendahl

Well, it has now been 54 years since Shippingport went online, 51 years since Dresden 1.

So nukes don't have a trivially short record.

Compare the silly Greenpeace allegation of taxpayer assumption of risk with reality. Insurance required of the industry under the Price-Anderson Act worked spectacularly to cover public liability for its only major U.S. accident, Three Mile Island in 1979. Well over $10 billion is currently available in this industry-financed program to indemnify the public against damage. As to the plants, their owners--not taxpayers--are responsible for loss due to accident.

Further, the federal treasury is sitting on some $20 billion collected from utilities under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to pay for permanent storage of spent fuel. Though another $10 billion of NWPA funds has now been expended by the feds on the Yucca Mountain project, the feds have not accepted a spoonful of spent fuel in the 29 years since that act became law.

Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration are in the process of deep-sixing Yucca Mountain on political, not technical, grounds. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is the son of the sponsor of the NWPA, U.S. Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., and has uttered not a peep of protest over this governmental bad faith. (That's despite his fatuous claim to supporting increased nuclear energy.)

If the problem weren't so grave for the good of the United States, I would laugh when I read again about nukes being viewed in financial circles as bad risks. Their stellar record of production versus property and bodily injury is unmatched by any other industry in history. Further, plants like Arizona's Palo Verde are producing electricity at rates so low as to make any other source blush. It's political risk that keeps this terrific energy source on the financial ropes. For that we can thank fabulously wealthy Big Enviro, comprising outfits like Greenpeace and its myriad allies.

Justin McKeating

What we need to remember is that nuclear power is a dated technology at the end of its learning curve. Talk about thorium reactors and so-called fourth generation technology is interesting, but when can we expect these to be commercially viable? It’s going to be decades. Building one in a laboratory is one thing but scaling it up to produce electricity on an industrial scale is another. Even a massive global nuclear player like AREVA isn’t interested in thorium reactors. So dubious are Greenpeace members about the future potential of thorium and fourth generation reactors that we don’t even bother campaigning against them.

Renewables on the other hand are a rapidly growing industry--they’re getting cheaper and more efficient all the time. Look at innovations like Japan’s Wind Lens technology, which could produce two or three times more power than conventional wind turbines.

As for baseload power (if we want to stick with old, outdated methods rather than more efficient distributed power systems), renewable technologies are already addressing this. Spain’s Gemasolar Concentrated Solar Power project has a capacity of 75% and will power 27,500 homes all day and nearly all night.

And what about energy efficiency? We’re seeing it in action in Japan right now. Despite having only 2 of its 17 nuclear reactors operating, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has said it will still be able to meet electricity demand throughout the winter--mandatory energy curbs and blackouts will be unlikely.

Nuclear power’s contribution to the fight against climate change is also negligible. Nuclear is not a 'clean' technology--mining uranium, producing nuclear fuel, and building nuclear reactors are all activities that produce greenhouse gases.

According to the International Energy Agency, a massive nuclear reactor building programme between now and 2050 would only help to cut greenhouse gases by just 6% as opposed to a 21% cut if we push for renewables. We're in a race against time with climate change. We simply can't afford to wait decades for nuclear power to get its act together.

The tide is turning against nuclear power and has been for some time. If the weight of public opinion doesn’t kill it then the economics certainly will. The smart money just isn’t interested. The nuclear industry has had 60 years and billions upon billions in public subsidies to come up with a viable business model and has failed. It's time to give the renewables and energy efficiency industry a turn.

(I blog on nuclear issues for Greenpeace International: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/)

B Beaven

To exist, industrial societies must have what is known in the electrical generation industry as baseload electricity. It comes from big coal, gas, and nuclear power plants that deliver millions of megawatts of electricity every day and every night, rain or shine. These plants make our electricity-based lifestyle possible.

The output of solar cells and windmills will never satisfy the power consumption needs of the planet's industrial economies. They are known as "intermittent power sources" for a reason.

Besides hydroelectric, which requires damming rivers or living within close proximity to an elevated water source such as Norway's fjords or Niagara Falls, there is only one proven carbon-free option that has the capacity to generate baseload power—nuclear energy. Nuclear plants emit zero carbon dioxide and they are one of the cheapest and safest sources per kilowatt hour of baseload electricity.

As John Borshoff, the CEO of Paladin Energy, recently said, "Nuclear is not here because people love it, it is here because there is no option, period."

(Excerpt from an opinion article at Institute for Energy Research entitled "Solyndra Symbolizes the Big Green Lie" by Mark Morabito)

DiogenesNJ

Those who reject nuclear because of high cost match the classic Yiddish example of chutzpah: One who, after murdering his parents, begs the court's mercy because he's an orphan.

Since it is almost entirely cost of capital, the cost of nuclear is high mainly because the environmental movement has become adept at using the legal system strategically to raise its cost by delaying approvals at every stage. Those NIMBY lawsuit skills are now being applied to the greens' favored solutions as well. Google "Cape Wind" and see what you get.

Kudos to the other posters who cited the European ExternE project, which assessed the total life-cycle risk of all common modes of power generation and indeed found nuclear to be the safest. Wind turbines may not melt down, but their construction is not environmentally benign: massive land use, much higher volumes of steel and concrete than the equivalent nuclear power, and reliance on scarce materials. As an example, check out this article:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1350811/In-China-true-cost-Britains-clean-green-wind-power-experiment-Pollution-disastrous-scale.html

for a look at the pollution generated to make the magnets in wind-turbine rotors. Green ain't necessarily as green as you think.

Here's a link to a much-expanded version of a talk I gave at my kids' school for Earth Day, a month after Fukushima, entitled "A Rational Environmentalist's Guide to Nuclear Power":

http://www.scribd.com/doc/54904454

skinnydog

"Wind turbines do not melt down..."

Neither do molten salt (liquid fuel) reactors. It is physically impossible--because the fuel is already melted.

"...they aren’t targeted by terrorists..."

What nuclear reactors have been targeted by terrorists?

"... they can’t be used to make nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. The same cannot be said for nuclear power..."

Yes, it can, at least the nuclear weapon part. (A dirty bomb can be made with a truckload of smoke detectors, which contain Americium.)

Nuclear reactors run on 2% to 5% enriched uranium. 95% enriched uranium is needed to make a bomb, and such highly enriched uranium it is made in centrifuges, not reactors.

Plutonium for bombs is made in "research reactors," which lightly cook uranium for a maximum of 59 days and produce no electricity in the process. A research reactor can be built in a cave for about $10 million, and the plans are online. It's called The Manhattan Project, and it has nothing to do with producing power, or power reactors.

You don't need a power reactor to make a bomb, so shutting down nuclear power will not stop bomb making.

Shutting down nuclear powers to prevent nuclear weapons is like shutting down the petroleum industry to prevent napalm. It's more than a misleading statement. It's scare-mongering and downright silly.

The North Koreans made a bomb without ever producing one single watt of nuclear power.

We can shut down dirty coal plants without ever building another nuclear reactor. In fact, we’ve already begun.

fgordon

The latest price for a nuclear power station I know of (before!= Fukushima) was ~ 10.000 Canadian Dollars/kw

http://www.thestar.com/comment/columnists/article/665644

Nuclear is affordable for the "new rich guys like China/India" but no longer a real option for countries on decline--they have to use the far cheaper alternatives.

B Beaven

Isn't it going to come down to economics? Please see this article by Christine Todd Whitman--former EPA Administrator, now pro nuclear advocate, http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2011/12/22/2321545/generating-electricity-and-jobs.html#storylink=cpy

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