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New nuclear power: Too pricey, and getting worse?


No one has ever called nuclear energy cheap. Well, okay, it was once — apocryphally perhaps — dubbed potentially “too cheap to meter.” The reality has been anything but. The first building boom in nuclear energy collapsed in the late 1970s, as much because of the mounting price of new plants as from all the bad juju from the Three Mile Island near meltdown. This time around, nuclear planners were careful to make no pledges about nuclear energy’s low cost. The new appeal is huge volumes of carbon free energy. Never mind that nukes are not really carbon free, given fuel processing and the energy needed to make the fuel.

It was at least hoped to be more be affordable, and offered as a way to build the sort of big “base load” plants that are getting harder and harder to build using coal. Yet the price tag for nuclear energy 2.0 is headed off the charts. In Time magazine, Michael Grunwald points out, “The first detailed cost estimate, filed by Florida Power & Light (FPL) for a large plant off the Keys, came in at a shocking $12 billion to $18 billion. Progress Energy announced a $17 billion plan for a similar Florida plant, tripling its estimate in just a year.” Over at Grist.com, Joseph Romm puts these figures in perspective. With such high up front construction costs, according to a new study, the price of the power they produce will be very high — 25 to 30 cents (in nominal future dollars) per kilowatt hour — a multiple a current average costs.

This may have you scratching your head, thinking: “aren’t high costs the argument against many renewables, such as wind and solar?” At Treehugger, Matthew McDermott summarizes how Lester Brown dismantles the economic argument for nuclear power pointing out that wind power, at 7 cents per kwh, is half the price of nuclear energy, which he estimates at 14 cents per kwh (about half the price in the figures Romm is using). The cost trend for renewables, Romm adds, is falling: solar and wind have fallen in price linearly over the past few decades and face zero future fuel costs. It’s the opposite for nukes, which are encountering rising fuel and construction costs as nuclear plants proliferate around the world.

For me the coupe de grace may be Brown’s arguments that wind mills and other renewables will generate more green jobs, in more geographies, with lower environmental risk than nukes.

Remind me again: what’s the argument for new nukes?


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