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The Case for Nuclear Power — Despite the Risks

Just 99 nuclear plants in the U.S. provide one-fifth of the country’s electricity

A partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 was one of the three most serious accidents at nuclear power stations globally. While frightening, the accident resulted in no health consequences to the public.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear power is likely the least well understood energy source in the United States. Just 99 nuclear power plants spread over 30 states provide one-fifth of America’s electricity. These plants have provided reliable, affordable, and clean energy for decades. They also carry risk — to the public, to the environment, and to the financial solvency of utilities.

Risk is the product of the probability of an occurrence and its consequence. The probability of dying in a car accident is actually quite high compared to other daily events, but such accidents usually claim few individuals at a time, and so the risk is low. The reason that nuclear energy attracts so much attention is that while the probability of a catastrophic event is extremely low, the consequence is often perceived to be extremely high.

Nuclear power and public risk

In the U.S., commercial nuclear plants have been operating since the late 1960s. If you add up the plants’ years in operation, they average about 30 years each, totaling about 3,000 reactor years of operating experience. There have been no fatalities to any member of the public due to the operation of a commercial nuclear power plant in the U.S. Our risk in human terms is vanishingly low.

Nuclear power’s safety record is laudable, considering that nuclear plants are running full-tilt. The average capacity factor of these plants exceeds 90 percent; that means 99 plants are generating full power over 90 percent of the time.

If you compare that to any other energy form, there’s a huge gap. Coal is a mainstay of electricity generation in this country and has a capacity factor of around 65 percent. Gas is about the same; wind’s capacity factor is around is 30 percent, and solar is at 25 percent.

While the probability of a nuclear catastrophe is extremely low, it is only part of the risk calculation. The other part of risk is consequence. The world has been host to three major nuclear power generation accidents: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. To the best of our knowledge, Three Mile Island, while terribly frightening, resulted in no health consequences to the public.

Chernobyl was an unmitigated disaster in which the reactor vessel — the place where the nuclear fuel produces heat — was ruptured and the graphite moderator in the reactor ignited, causing an open-air fire and large releases of radioactive material. This reactor design would never have been licensed to operate in the Western world because it lacked a containment.

The scientific consensus on the effects of the disaster as developed by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has identified 66 deaths from trauma, acute radiation poisoning and cases of thyroid cancer. Additional deaths may occur over time, as understanding the causes of death is a statistical rather than a deterministic process. Considering that the authorities didn’t alert the neighboring communities for many hours, the long-term health consequences of that reactor accident are surprisingly small.

And then there was Fukushima Daiichi. At least three of the reactors have sustained core damage, and there is potentially damage to the reactor vessel as well. At this time, no deaths have been attributed to radiation release at Fukushima, but an estimated 1,600 people died as a result of evacuation, and land contamination was widespread.

So if you look at these cases together, in Chernobyl, you had a reactor core on fire and open to the air; in Fukushima, three reactors lost all power during full operation and sustained major core damage, resulting in substantial radioactivity release in one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

These accidents had serious, lasting consequences that aren’t to be trivialized, but the consequences are nothing like what has been feared and glorified in movies over the past 50 years. What we’ve learned about public risk during that time is that the forecast nightmares resulting from nuclear accidents, even in serious accidents, simply haven’t come to fruition. At the same time, as a society, we’ve come to accept — or at least look the other way from — thousands of traffic- or coal-related deaths every year in the U.S. alone.

Waste containment: risk and storage

The production of energy in any form alters the environment. Coal and natural gas generate particulates and greenhouse gases. In 2012, coal plants in the U.S. generated 110 million tons of coal ash. Nuclear waste created by power generation is in solid form, and the volume is minuscule in comparison, but extremely toxic. Even the production of wind and solar energy generates waste.

Fuel for nuclear plants is in the form of fuel assemblies or bundles, each containing tubes of a zirconium alloy that hold hundreds of ceramic pellets of uranium oxide.

Each fuel assembly provides power for four to five years before it is removed. After removal, the fuel is considered to be waste and must be safely stored, as its radiotoxicity level is extremely high. Unprocessed, it takes about 300,000 years for the radiation level of the waste inside an assembly to return to background levels, at which point it is benign.

Due to the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, there is no place designated for long-term nuclear waste storage in the U.S., and utilities have resorted to constructing on-site storage at their plants. These storage containers were not designed to be permanent, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is now licensing these temporary facilities for up to 100 years.

Many cheered when the Yucca Mountain project was shuttered, but waste still must be stored, and clearly it is safer to store the waste in a single, permanent depository than in 99 separate and temporary structures.

Monitored, retrievable storage is the safest approach to nuclear waste storage. Waste sites could be centralized and continuously monitored, and built in such a way that waste canisters could be retrieved if, for example, storage technology improves, or if it becomes economical to reprocess the waste to recover the remaining uranium and plutonium created during operation.

If we are to keep using nuclear power even at the present rate, our risks related to waste will increase every year until storage is addressed thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Infrastructure: same plant, different century

At the dawn of commercial nuclear power, the prospect of cheap, plentiful energy produced forecasts that nuclear energy would be too cheap to meter — we’d all be ripping the meters off our houses. But as plant designs evolved, it became clear that ensuring safety would increase the cost of the energy produced.

Every accident taught us something, and with every accident the NRC unveiled a new set of regulations, resulting in a system of plants that are, from the perspective of a few decades ago, much safer. Such tight regulatory oversight, while needed, drives up the cost and means that utilities undertake significant financial risk with each nuclear plant they build.

Decades ago, the idea that the NRC would be granting 20-year license extensions to power plants was unheard of. Today, 75% of plants have received them. Now there’s talk about a second round of license extensions, and the NRC, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the industry are engaged in talking about what it would take to get a third. We’re talking about 80 or even 100 years of operation, in which case a plant would outlive the earth’s population at the time it was built.

In the shorter term, life extension makes sense. Most of the plants in the U.S. are Generation 2 plants, but Generation 3 is being built all over the world. Gen 2 plants are proving very robust, and existing plants are quite economical to operate. Gen 3 plants, like Vogtle now being built in Georgia, boast better safety systems, better structural components, and better design.

Would I rather have one of those than the one I have now? Absolutely. The risk of operating such a facility is simply lower. At $4.5 billion to $10 billion, a Gen 3 plant is very expensive to build, but we must either accept that capital outlay or find another source of electricity that has all the benefits of nuclear energy.

How much risk do we accept?

As a society, we accepted over 32,000 traffic accident deaths in 2013, and no one stopped driving as a result.

I think most people would be surprised to know that in 2012, seven million people globally died from health complications due to air pollution and that an estimated 13,000 U.S. deaths were directly attributable to fossil-fired plants.

U.S. deaths from coal represent an annual catastrophe that exceeds that of all nuclear accidents over all time. In fact, nuclear power has prevented an estimated 1.84 million air-pollution related deaths worldwide. Natural gas plants, increasingly being constructed around the country, are highly subject to price volatility and, while cleaner than coal, they still account for 22 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in the U.S. This is not to mention the illogical use of this precious resource for electricity generation versus uses for which it is more uniquely suited, such as heating homes or powering vehicles.

And until the capacity factor for renewables increases dramatically, the cost drops and large-scale storage is developed, they are simply not equipped to handle the bulk of U.S. energy needs nor to provide electricity on demand.

Through the NRC’s oversight and the work of researchers all over the world, we have applied lessons from every global nuclear event to every American nuclear plant. The risk inherent in nuclear plant operation will always be present, but it is one of the world’s most rigorously monitored activities, and its proven performance in delivering zero-carbon electricity is one that shouldn’t be dismissed out of fear.

Gary Was is Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at University of Michigan.This article was originally published on The Conversation. You can read the original article here.


  1. vensonata | | #1

    Best before date has passed.
    Many who keep up on the energy debate are familiar with the arguments presented, and in some forums the amount of heat generated in the arguments alone would be enough to power the U.S. That was because of the genuine uncertainty around the case for the economic viability of renewables such as solar and wind. The uncertainty has passed in the last few years and both the economic case and practical case are simply obvious, to the informed person, that solar, wind and hydro and storage can quite easily and economically power the world. Furthermore it can happen more quickly and cheaply than nuclear. Storage has come into its own very recently and the price is falling rapidly.
    The arguments about the dangers of coal etc strengthen the positive case for renewables even more so than nuclear. As far as the assurances of the safety of nuclear from physicists and engineers, the problem is the ordinary person cannot verify your facts. They may be correct, but John Q. Citizen will never know and can only trust. But apparently ordinary people just don't trust the experts. I am not speaking for the correctness of that attitude but it is just a fact.
    So the arguments the Professor has offered us are now rather stale and unconvincing and the full commitment to renewables will benefit by the ending of the nuclear alternative which has slowed down the rather urgent need to push the renewable revolution. By the way, if renewables were not available I would be advocating for nuclear despite the costs and the risks, as fossil fuels are catastrophic to the planet.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    I agree with Ven Sonata
    Ven is right that the changes to our climate that would result from the continued burning of fossil fuels are so catastrophic that reasonable environmentalists need to at least consider the arguments in favor of nuclear power. However, the logical underpinnings of the nuclear power option are crumbling fast, due to simple economics. These plants are massively expensive, and depend on huge government subsidies (most glaringly, protection from legal liability resulting from nuclear accidents).

    When Wall Street walks away from nuclear power, as it already has, the industry is doomed.

  3. user-998246 | | #3

    Certain uncertainty
    First, this was a well written article that makes a very good point, albeit primarily to demonstrate the concept of risk. Also, I would clarify the 1,600 fukushima deaths figure since most, if not all, of those were actually attributed to the tsunami/flood rather than the nuclear accidents, which were themselves directly caused by the flood/tsunami.

    Ven, I'm not sure you understand the point the article was making nor that your assertion about powering the world with renewables is valid. There are many pieces to the energy puzzle and there is no panacea; you must first accept that fact. While it might be plausible to power the world with renewables, it is hardly practical as you claim to do so economically in the near term. I am all for renewables but the fact of the matter is they lack the capacity factor that nuclear has proven. That is, if you were to compare the various commercial power generating technologies on a cost per kWh-generated, you will see the huge gap that the author is essentially pointing to. This is precisely why proponents of the respective technologies typically list the capacity of their goods in strange units like households or simply state the nameplate capacities, ignoring the net figures, i.e., after applying the capacity factors. Think about it; how much would it cost to build a wind or solar farm with a net generating capacity of roughly 2 MWe, thereby replacing an existing nuclear plant? What we need to do is encourage people to do the math, then focus on diversity, and then ensuring the safety of whatever mix you end up with. Consider that the current fleet of nuclear plants operating were essentially designed 50 years ago and have operated relatively safely for 40 years. Then imagine what role a few newer ones could play and I think it's reasonable to see nuclear serving a vital role in the near term energy mix, e.g., 20% for the next 50-100 years. If you really think we can power even just the US with 100% renewables within the next 50 years, I would love to see the math behind such an assertion. This applies to all energy predictions whether related to nuclear or not.

  4. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    The RIGHT nuclear technology.
    Right now there is a huge stockpile of spent fuel rod at existing nuke sites that has to be protected for something on the order of 10,000 -100,000 years (pick an order of magnitude for relative safety) due to it's high radioactivity . This is a problem. Nobody has designed and tested a repository that is guaranteed to be safe for even 10,000 years- it's too far out of human time scale.

    Molten salt reactors that are inherently fail-safe, and do not require large expensive containment structures have been tested & proven. The most popular versions of this techonology use Thorium as the nuclear fuel, which isn't super-rare, but it's toxic, and would have to be mined.

    An inherently fail-safe molten salt reactor design that uses SPENT FUEL ROD as a fuel is currently under development by the startup, Transatomic. (See: )

    Legacy nuclear power designs extract about 5% of the energy out of fuel rod before it's too brittle to be safe, but a molten salt reactor can take the lion's share of the rest of the energy out with zero melt-down risk. The resulting waste from those more depleting reactions takes about 500 years to become relatively safe to handle. (A 500 year safe-storage time is something humans CAN reliably design for.)

    With this technology...

    * The reactors are comparatively cheap & scalable, and can be built on existing nuclear sites.

    * No fuel needs to be mined for at least 100 years, maybe longer, since the stockpile of existing spent fuel rods in the US could power the entire US grid at current usage rates for a century, and there are other cheaper grid sources it's competing with.

    * The existing nuclear fuel/waste would not have to be transported for processing or interment/disposal.

    Regardless of the rest of the nuke biz, this technology fixes a real problem, and has little potential for creating new / worse problems, while delivering a decent energy dividend.

    Even though any new nuclear power is more expensive on a lifecycle basis than renewables are (or will within a decade), a nuclear technology that leverages and fixes a waste problem is worth pursuing.

    Martin: Wall Street didn't WALK away from nuclear power, it RAN away from the industry after the WPPSS bond default some ~30 years ago, never to return. Even with financial backing and guarantees from the Feds it's a financially risky move to build any generation on that scale, in the face of flat to declining power use in the market and the rise of ubiquitous & cheap distributed renewables poised to erode power sales even further.

    The whole centralized power grid model is beginning to crumble, and at a accelerating rate- Australia is something akin to a canary in the grid-coal mine. There they built out the grid capacity in anticipation of unending growth in kwh sales, but the cost of that gold-plated grid caused rates to soar, making distributed PV (even at Scroogely net metering compensation) much cheaper than grid power. The rate of adoption of PV quickly became a torrent, and as the price of PV dropped it has accelerated, with no clear end in sight "load defection" is in full swing, eroding electricity sales.

    And with lower annual kwh sales across which to distribute the capital cost of the over-built grid, the rates have been creeping up, causing more PV sales. Parts of Australia (particularly the Western Australia grid) at teetering dangerously on the edge of the "utility death spiral", since the rates required to pay off the sunk costs are already above the lifecycle cost of outright grid-defection with local PV and batteries (!). The cost trajectory on both PV and batteries are sharply downward, with double-digit learning curves, and accelerating deployment rates. The train has left the station, and high-cost electricity markets like Australia & Germany (and Hawaii) are the first places where the traditional utility business models are getting crushed by distributed renewable power.

    What happens to the economics of thermal coal in the face of rapid deployment of efficiency & and distributed generation (on both sides of the meter) isn't unique to thermal coal, and thermal coal is still pretty cheap relative to nuclear power from new reactors.

    Meanwhile in France (often considered a nuclear success story) the taxpayers are bailing out the industry (again?) :

    It's not clear that there's ever going to be a financial case for nuclear power going forward- it's gone from "too cheap to meter" to "to expensive to matter" in just three generations. But if we're going to subsidize a nuclear technology, let's lead with a technology that mitigates an existing nuclear waste problem.

  5. rsmith02 | | #5

    Views from from northeatstern Japan
    I would feel a lot more comfortable with nuclear power if I thought the US NRC was an aggressive and competent overseer keeping the reactor operators honest despite the fact that much of the risks in case of catastrophe are on the public and not on them. Are protections in place at each nuclear reactor in the US to guard against the prolonged loss of grid power to the power plants that will, if not remedied, lead to meltdown?

    Fukushima Japan is less dense than the northeastern US where we still have plants like Indian Point and Millstone near major population centers. Do we have plan Bs and Cs for when the batteries fail, issues start at multiple reactors and one or more backup generators begins to fail in the midst of a civilian emergency where there is no grid to reconnect to, roads are impassible and first responders are already stretched, and regular communications lines are jammed with civilians reporting emergencies and trying to find loved ones (think Superstorm Sandy had the storm not gone out to sea after NYC, a massive blizzard like what took out most of Connecticut's power several years ago or something similar.)

    The human cost of displacement in Fukushima has been staggering- lost family farms, communities flung asunder, suicides, elderly stuck indefinitely in cramped temporary housing, and the reputational damage to the whole prefecture which means it is difficult to sell the produce it is famous for and there is a off-shore fishing ban to this day. The 1600 deaths in Fukushima from the earthquake/tsunami are less now than the 1600+ deaths from stress and displacement (Fukushima only had a few towns hit by the tsunami and was far worse affected by the nuclear disaster. To Japan's credit, the 9.0 earthquake destroyed some old buildings but amazingly was not a significant cause of death.

    Where I live in the neighboring prefecture to the north (which had many more tsunami deaths) we are still suffering from a drop in tourism (a major industry) as foreign visitors think all of northern Japan is radioactive (not true.) Had a spent fuel pool gone or the Fukushima Daini gone a few more hours without power this disaster would have been far worse.

    No power source is free of issues and nuclear reactors do seem quite robust in almost all circumstances. Fukushima was just a little too close to the reality in the US for my tastes, with similar vintages of GE-designed reactors, regulatory protocols adapted in part from the NRC, and spent fuel crammed into pools on site. Are we doing everything within reason to avoid those worst case scenarios or are plant operators balancing that against the need to maintain plant operating profits in a time they are getting squeezed by wind and natural gas?

  6. rsmith02 | | #6

    You can get to greater than
    You can get to greater than nuclear renewable energy production (35%+) without storage today but with technologies like better weather forecasting, better transmission between regions, demand response and others. See Germany, Denmark, and others in western Europe. I think all too often Japan and the US think they are unique and have nothing to learn from the rest of the world.

    I thought this presentation by Tom Brown on the European experience was quite well done.
    Video of the panel and powerpoint can be found in the after-lunch session.

    [Editor's note: Here is the link to the PowerPoint by Tom Brown: High shares of renewables in Europe. In the video that includes Tom Brown on the panel, Tom Brown begins speaking at 13:00 minutes into the video.]

  7. vensonata | | #7

    Reply to Joe Shmo.
    I am afraid, like the Professor's arguments, the preoccupation with renewables "capacity factor" is also stale and out of date. Price per kWh is fully accounted for in the capacity factor. Wind turbines have increased in height where wind speed and regularity increase, capacity factors reach 50%. With wide distribution of Turbines intermittency disappears and of course solar is extremely predictable. These issues of concern about when "the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow" are 5 years out of date. Usually nuclear fans don't keep up with the technological changes in solar, wind and storage and so don't realize their talking points are now obsolete. As to price, nothing competes with wind, except that solar wis hot on its heels. And remember this basic point, when we discuss cost per kwh the capacity factor has already been accounted for.

  8. nvman | | #8

    All reasonable opinions
    I read a lot of reasonable arguments from a lot of well informed people but from a layman's perspective, nuclear power scares me due to the issue of what to do with spent fuel rods that can take a hundred thousands years to stabilize. I have talked to many people, young and old, and no one is I favour of nuclear energy..

    Everyone knows that sooner or later something bad is going to happen. Maybe not in our lifetime but at some time. If Gary's opinion is that the past nuclear disasters are not significant, then it only means that our chances of having a significant accident, are higher.

  9. user-998246 | | #9

    Sorry, Ven, now you're just wrong.
    The costs are not fully accounted for in the capacity factor and the concept of a capacity is hardly stale at all, it is basic engineering and logic. I believe what you mean is that the capacity factor is accounted for in your electric bill but so are subsidies. To attempt to dismiss a discussion of capacity factors as simply stale is simply silly, especially considering you proceed to use it in your own wind argument. A very simple proof of this is the fact that new solar and wind generation is always listed at nameplate capacity. One only needs to take that respective cost and apply the appropriate capacity factor to see that the costs of large-scale projects are actually quite expensive, which still rely on fossil plants for backup. Alternatively, you can use the nameplate capacity and then attempt to account for maintenance and other activities or weather/daylight limitations but that's essentially what the capacity factor does include in addition to inherent inefficiencies in converting intake to electricity. Your assertion that fans of nuclear are unaware of technological advances is nonsense and divisive at best. Honestly, you demonstrate a lack of interest in basic arithmetic with your arguments while simultaneously dismissing or ignoring the very factors that stand directly in the way of full-scale adoption of renewables. That is, the sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow hard enough, and there's a huge difference in scale of existing wind and solar plants compared to baseload fossil and nuke plants. You're quite literally comparing apples and oranges. The idea that there's some conspiracy preventing the adoption of renewables is crazy talk. If someone can make money on something, they'll do it but the fact of the matter is that wind and solar have only proven lucrative under certain circumstances so far, e.g. huge subsidies and regional efficiency. They continue to improve but I will reiterate that if you genuinely think that we can power even the US on renewables within the next 50 years, I'd love to see your math rather than see you allude to math you clearly haven't done. For the record, I am 100% in favor of widespread adoption of renewables but I understand that it will be another century before they actually replace the preceding century's infrastructure.

    Dana - I think one of the challenges to new or other nuclear technologies is proliferation concerns, e.g., plutonium appearing in a given nuclear fuel cycle even as a passthrough. Another is simply inertia and an industry and infrastructure so entrenched in doing things a particular way with a particular fuel or design for so long. But you're right, any new nuclear should be new as opposed to slightly updated forms of the old, e.g., Vogtle. The public should demand that certain plants be shutdown and in exchange a few new ones can be built; if we're going to have nuclear, it should at least be the latest and greatest example of it.

    Roger - You seem to be concerned with a bonafide doomsday scenario, which would represent all of what you describe and then some. Nuclear plants would probably be the least of our worries in such a scenario. Regarding standby and backup power, US plants typically have both, in the form of batteries and diesel generators with day tanks and large storage tanks. The turbine itself also provides spindown power for a short/shutdown period. What happened at Fukushima was unique in that there was a huge quake followed by a huge tsunami that physically wiped out the diesel fuel supply and the surrounding grid power. The plant itself survived the quake alone fairly well though. One of the biggest lessons to learn from Fukushima is really that siting is paramount in certain situations or regions. One could argue that US plants aren't even susceptible to a similar series of events but should be designed and sited for whatever they are susceptible to nonetheless. We also learned that what many armchair experts said did or would happen at Fukushima didn't, e.g., the SPFs boiling off. SPFs are fairly cool fairly quickly and much of the fuel in the ones at Fukushima had been there a while. In general, people just need to better understand what the risks and challenges are and what they're not. There is far too much misinformation and fearmongering out there to allow people to form educated opinions on things like nuclear. The industry has done a lousy job of presenting information and maintaining transparency. If people oppose nuclear, that is fine, as long as it is based on factual information and not nonsense like it causing your kidneys to disappear while you sleep (an actual claim following the TMI accident). But you're also right, Roger, that plants must be designed with adequate redundancy and protection to drive the risks to manageable levels. Some plants should probably be dismantled while others should be replaced. The problem is whether people are even open to the idea of nuclear in general, even in a newer, safer form. If the answer is no, the options become even more limited. Having a diverse and technologically sophisticated energy structure must be part of the future.

    Aaron - I agree that waste is a huge glaring challenge for the nuclear concept but if they do find a way to better manage it, it would be a gamechanger. Reprocessing would be a start, not producing so much to begin with would be wise too. And it's hardly hundreds of thousands of years. The vast majority of high level waste decays to something relatively manageable within a few years with a very small amount remaining with much longer half lives but remember those longer periods are for the stuff to decay to being completely harmless. But many people fear nuclear because of things that simply aren't real or rational. The best thing people can and should do is educate themselves on the topic especially if they feel strongly about it. Its not the voodoo that certain groups make it out to be. Talk to someone who has spent time on a nuclear navy sub or carrier or who has worked at a nuke plant and see what they say. There are certainly many very real concerns when it comes to nuclear but there are many unreal ones as well that seem to cloud many people's judgement, which then makes an informed debate very difficult when an informed debate is what we so desperately need when it comes to energy policy.

  10. vensonata | | #10

    Sorry Joe, you are still out of date
    Joe, you challenge my math skills. And you'd be right about that! I tend to use places like MIT when I want math done. A recent report from MIT called "todays solar can power the world" goes into excruciating detail through over 300 pages about how it all works. One major complaint by them is that fossil fuels and Nuclear receive so much funding subsidy! And the entrenched political interests are a major impediment! In brief, they say because of the advent of storage, capacity factors become irrelevant. Now notice the emphasis is on Solar exclusively being able to power the world if storage is added. Wind was not mentioned, but we all know that wind and solar and storage and efficiency and geothermal and hydro etc are certainly able to do this. And we all know that the wealthiest corporations in the world are fossil fuel based. So yes Joe, I do not work out these formulas late at night with a pencil, when there seem to be a dozen leading university science, engineering, and economic departments loaded with PHD's who do this stuff for a living. I remain a humble reader of these reports and simply try to hand them on to others like me who frequent the generalist sites like GBA

  11. Tim C | | #11

    Denmark doesn't have storage?
    Roger: The only thing Denmark's high wind mix proves is that you don't need storage... if you can buy it from your neighbors. Denmark's 5GW of wind generation is backed by 35GW of dispatchable Hydro in Norway and Sweden, and Denmark pays a not insignificant amount to make use of that storage (I haven't seen a calculation of the actual number, I'd be interested in seeing it if anyone has seen a study).

    The US does have one advantage over Europe, though - greater climate variation. I recall seeing somewhere that in the US, "different" weather is on average only 100 miles away, while it's more like 250-300 in Europe (I had a source for this, but I lost it - if anyone knows, I'd love to find it again).

  12. user-998246 | | #12

    Ven, you failed to show where I was wrong and where you weren't.
    Like I said, you allude to someone having done the math but then basically validate my point that you haven't done the math nor apparently read deeper to learn that most of the math that has been done is shortsighted. It's not a matter of whether we can use other technologies to power the world, we've known this to be possible for decades now, it's at what cost. You're absolutely correct that subsidy is a huge point of contention, i.e., there's very little argument for continuing to subsidize mature and profitable fossil and nuclear industries however, it is also difficult to hail renewables as superior when they are subsidized even more than fossil and nuclear. Quite frankly, I am amazed at your lack of interest in what it would cost to pull off such a thing. But to simplify it way down for people like yourself who can't be bothered with basic math, it would cost many trillions of dollars and many, many years and that's assuming no one balks at the idea politically or fiscally. Evidently you are in the camp that simply ignores all of the practical hurdles involved in such an endeavor, which are precisely the type of people who make the job of those of us (with PhDs) actually doing the math to chart a sustainable path forward much more difficult. The people in our own camp glaze over when faced with real, practical limitations. So, no, Ven, I am not out of date, not in the least and you'd be wise to stop trying to dismiss an informed discussion as out of date simply because you lack a substantive counterpoint.

    Tim - You are correct. The US has many advantages over other parts of the world that we have yet to capitalize on with regard to energy policy and technological advancement. People should also keep in mind that many parts of the world, especially Europe, pay much more for energy even after subsidizing it much more as well.

  13. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to Joe Schmo
    I suggest that you make your technical points without insulting Ven Sonata.

    First, many analysts have compared government subsidies for fossil fuels with government subsidies for renewable energy. Most of these analyses conclude that the subsidies for fossil fuels exceed the subsidies for renewable energy.

    Second, government subsidies for nuclear power are what I would call "existential subsidies," because without the U.S. government's decision to assume all liability resulting from a nuclear disaster, the nuclear power industry in the U.S. would not exist.

    While there are many practical hurdles to providing 70% of Europe's (or North America's) electricity from renewable sources, the height of those hurdles is dropping every year. Wind power, PV power, and battery storage are all dropping in price. Meanwhile, the U.S. appetite for nuclear reactors is quite low -- and it's awfully hard to raise the billions of dollars needed for new nuclear plants. In the meantime, lots of investors are eager to invest in solar and wind projects.

  14. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #14

    As if on cue...
    GTM is covering the topic in today's blog:

    (including a link to an earliear podcast interview with Leslie Dewan the CEO of Transatomic.)

    In less than 15 years PV solar will be by far the cheapest power source there is, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's cheaper to make a 100% PV grid. Any new-nuclear is more expensive than current technology PV or US mid-western wind, and even some legacy nukes in the midwest have been rendered uneconomic in the face of rapid deployment of cheap wind. The relatively inflexible glacially slow ramp rates of nuclear reactors make them pretty lousy grid-complements to variable renewables, and the raw cooling water requirements means they sometimes have to be shut down in drought conditions, and/or curtailed in hot weather conditions, which isn't a favorable characteristic.

    The rise of big-data and grid smarts can do a lot for stabilizing the grid in a high non-dispatchable renewables environment, and in the US midwest big-data has allowed grid operators to turn off spinning reserves and adjust the output of wind farms (which are pretty fast-ramping) to provide much the same services, at a lower net cost. Over large grid regions the amount of storage or "backup" required for an all-renewables approach is really quite modest, and would be even less if aggregated demand-response can be better utilized. ( FERC order 745, anyone?)

    The "right" grid mix changes with both region and time as technology evolves, but the notion that the most effective & economic path to a low-carb grid required nuclear baseload is a thesis that seems to ignore recent evolution of grid control methods, and completely ignores the cost trajectories of both PV & wind, as well as that of grid storage. The investment banking sector worldwide has had something of an epiphany over the past 18-24 months around renewables costs, and while those analyses have probably made it to the board rooms of the oil majors, they too seem to be in denial, as it would seem many in the nuclear power business are. Historically the nuclear industry has over-promised and under-delivered- there's a credibility gap. But when unsubsidized utility-scale PV can already beat $10/bbl oil in open bidding for electricity in the middle east (as has happened this year) the case for nuclear going forward can't be on cost, even in a best-case no cost-overruns scenario. The only compelling case for new nuclear is for zero fuel-cost spent fuel rod consuming technology, where the premium value making it worth the higher lifecycle cost is the waste processing.

    The rest is just too slow to deploy, too slow to ramp, and too expensive on a lifecycle basis. We are now in a grid-financial environment where to rationalize a new reactor you have to make a 50 year bet on what the electricity demand and generation competition will be going forward to make the numbers work at all. With a rose colored crystal ball it may make sense, but the experience is that both behind the meter cheap PV and efficiency are poised to take grid electricity demand DOWN before it begins to rise again, even in (especially in?) a highly electrified transportation sector scenario.

    A highly electrified transportation sector would mean ubiquitous & distributed controllable battery loads for stabilizing the grid, and a surplus of used car-batteries that can be tapped for ultra-cheap grid storage solutions on either side of the meter. Nissan just this week announced a commercial grid-storage solution targeted at commercial ratepayers reducing their demand-charges, built on used Leaf batteries. When even 15-20% of the personal cars on the road are electric, renewables intermittentcy problems will be pretty much solved by smart-charger loads and used car batteries. In the time it takes to plan, permit, and build a new light water reactor, the nuclear project developer is making bet that that WON'T happen for at least another 30-40 years after the first fuel rods are loaded. Is that a good bet?

    I'm not 100% convinced that it won't happen by the time the reactor is putting it's first watt onto the grid, but I am convinced that it will be the case well before the any economic lifecycle of a lightwater reactor. Buck a watt installed cost PV has already happened at utility scale (though the average is still much higher), but with a ~20-22% financial learning curve and even a 24 month doubling rate (it's actually shorter that that), PV is going to eat everybody's lunch in the power generation biz (including wind), and soon- sooner than it takes to get a new light water reactor project onto the grid. Grid operation & sources in 2050 won't look very much like it did in 1950. Unlike big-hydro, thermal coal, and nuclear power, there aren't huge economies of scale for PV, and it can be sized & sited to fit the local need. It won't be the only grid source, but it'll be taking a large slice o' the US pie.

    Some light reading on PV cost tragectories:

  15. norm_farwell | | #15

    nuclear fails a basic sustainability test
    History is replete with the failure of human civilizations. No civilization has ever not failed. Sometimes they fall catastrophically, sometimes slowly.

    It strikes me as crazy to build power plants that are fragile, dangerous, and eternally dependent on a functional political power structure.

    Nassim Taleb points out that there is a class of risk for which a normal cost-benefit analysis is invalid: when the failure mode puts the larger system at risk (whether that system is society or the earth as a whole),a cost-benefit approach breaks down when the cost side of the equation becomes infinite.

    In the normal course of events, an isolated failure of one power plant (Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three-mile-island) while concerning, does threaten either society or the planet. However, in the case of a larger breakdown, the simultaneous failure of many nuclear power plants could have an infinite cost.

    It strikes me as arrogant and foolish to build reliance on a technology that cannot fail and that itself relies on a system that inevitably will fail.

    And on top of that, there is the fact that nuclear power conveniently legitimates nuclear weapons research and thereby increases the risk of weapons proliferation. Again, possibly an infinite cost.

  16. user-998246 | | #16

    I would suggest Ven not inslut an entire group of people working
    very hard to bring about change by dismissing their quantitative analyses as stale solely because one person just doesn't understand the underlying challenges.

    Dana makes much better points that in the process highlight why there is no panacea and the role that certain synergies will, and have been, playing in the technological advancements of renewables.

    I'll point out too that the vast majority of studies that have quantified the amount of subsidy going to various energy industries have focused on the sum total rather than the amount per kWh-generated, which is ultimately the more informative number when trying to make informed projections about future energy policy. As a sum amount fossil and nuke plants received more dollars but they also generated a lot more energy. Right or wrong, this is fact and you must compare the appropriate units, i.e., dollars vs. dollars per kWh-generated.

    Yes, nuclear has benefited greatly, perhaps entirely, from existential subsidy, i.e., the huge power of the federal government picking winners and losers. One could, and maybe should, argue that nuclear and fossil energy won last century and that it's time to pick a different winner for this century. Like I said, once a technology is profitable and mature (whether as a result of government force or not), the case for continued subsidy is inherently weak and the subsidy should end.

  17. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #17

    Response to Joe Schmo
    You are correct that the per-BTU subsidies for fossil fuels are lower than the per-BTU subsidies for renewable energy. That said, the huge subsidies for fossil fuels -- annual subsidies of $550 billion, versus only $120 billion for renewable energy -- are alarming, for two reasons:

    1. Burning fossil fuels is causing global climate change that is likely to lead to environmental catastrophe. Subsidizing the industries that are contributing to this climate change is galling to taxpayers -- to put it mildly.

    2. Most experts recognize that avoiding the most catastrophic results of climate change requires a huge economic investment in renewable energy sources, so that these sources of energy can take over some of the role now occupied by fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Government subsidies should encourage this energy transformation -- so a larger investment in renewable energy makes sense.

  18. user-998246 | | #18

    Martin, I couldn't agree more.
    I wasn't implying that we should accept the continued subsidy of the fossil and nuclear industries, just pointing out that we must be clear and honest when discussing subsidy as to lend proper credit to our arguments. Too often, people are misguided due to a lack of understanding of the underlying engineering challenges and units of measurement. Basic logic would tell us that if an industry is mature and profitable, there is no reason to subsidize them, certainly not with tax dollars.

    I will add that the burning fossil fuels is not only extremely wasteful considering how incomplete the total cycle is but it is also wasteful in that fossil fuels, particularly oil can and must be used for other purposes than burning, e.g., polymers and plastics. Why burn the stuff when we can at least use it more wisely for things we truly need, at least for the time being.

  19. Dana1 | | #19

    A case for not banking too heavily on nuclear
    The Australian case being the canary in the grid-coal mine, cheap PV is (somewhat conservatively) projected to induce negative total grid load in some parts of the country in less than a decade:

    That is, unless the local storage and electric vehicle options become big enough quickly enough. Local storage might ramp quickly enough due to the onerous net-metering structures and high electricity rates in that country, but probably not EVs.

    What's happening in high retail cost electricity markets is coming to a grid near you sooner than most of us think. In California the CAISO and CPUC are trying to stay ahead of the curve with grid storage mandates and promoting EVs. In Hawaii they didn't figure it out until late in the game, but demonstrable inability to get on top of it led to selling the entire utility to NextERA (approved just this month) who at least THINK they have a plan and a business model that can work. It doesn't include nuclear, despite being one of the few markets in the US with power expensive enough to make new-nuclear profitable. I guess they can read the handwriting on the wall too.

    The inflexible nature of nuclear output doesn't play nice with the short periods of zero (or negative) load that are guaranteed in a high-variable-renewables scenario. The same slow-ramping problem also keeps nuclear from being able to track the grid load even when it's well into positive load territory, which is why heavily nuclear France exports off-peak power all night at a financial loss to anybody who will take it rather than having to turn the reactors down overnight, since it would take several days (not hours) to ramp back up to what's needed in the AM. France then imports peak power from it's neighbors at a premium price. Even though France is by far a net power exporter in twh terms, in Euro currency terms they pay more for import power than they receive for exported power. EVs could soak up some of that excess, but there are no surging EV sales in France (yet.)

  20. user-998246 | | #20

    I think you're highlighting the need for baseload density.
    You're correct that renewables pose their own set of challenges with regard to fluctuation and potential irregularity, which creates the need for supply-load smoothing that some regions currently use renewables to do while others use nuclear and where batteries might be very useful. This also highlights the need of a reasonable mix of energy resources that is flexible enough to adapt to certain scenarios. While you imply that a less flexible energy source might be bad for certain situations (which could be true), there are other situations where many people think it is good, e.g., baseload generation. With the current scheme and installed technology, its easy to envision either case but if you were to project what might be available in 20-40 years, you might see a much more flexible energy portfolio that could or would include a number of technologies, including nuclear, albeit the next generation of it, i.e., evolutionary and revolutionary nuclear designs. Personally, I see having a blend of something like 20-20-20-20-20, wind-solar-nuclear-fossil-other as being a more reasonable target for 50 years from now and I say that in the context of economics and political will.

    I'm not promoting nuclear but because that is the topic of this article, many of the arguments against nuclear today pertain to designs that were created literally 50 years ago and built 50-30 years ago. Not only have more common light water reactor designs greatly improved since then but other forms have been drafted as well, e.g., breeders/thorium, small modular, etc. that would address many of the "problems" in the existing fleet. That's not to say that things like waste, proliferation, etc. might not still exist with some of the new options but the point is that if we are talking about the future, we should talk about the future. Imagine a discussion about future energy policy that focused predominantly on the PV and wind technology figures from 30 years ago. I think, we the exception of maybe waste, the nuclear debate is more political than just about anything else when it comes down to it. The economics are far from insurmountable, especially if you consider that many adopters of renewables do or would pay a premium for them to begin with. That is, if people are willing to pay more for energy, its not hard to envision nuclear playing a role int he future and even if they're not willing to pay more, its still easy to see nuclear playing a role. Oh, and France sells a lot of their nuclear energy to Germany...who shut down their nuclear reactors and whose ratepayers pay roughly 3 times as much for their energy as we do in the US and that's after subsidizing their reneweables roughly twice as much as we do in the US.

    The most important thing though is to focus on what might be possible in the near term as far as energy policy goes, say 10-50 years vs. 50-100 and so on. We also need to be keenly aware of the costs and the costs that Americans may or may not be willing to pay for energy. Unfortunately there will always be some portion of the population, perhaps even half, that either refuse to pay anything more for their energy or are just adamantly opposed to anything other than fossil fuels and maybe nukes because of a misconception about what it all really means.

  21. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #21

    Coming back to this discussion...
    The case against nuclear is primarily economic (even relative to storage-stabilized renewables), and the bad news truth just keeps piling on:

    If the economics of nuclear are indeed surmountable, the financial sector needs to see the existence proofs of financial viability before investing in more large scale centralized inflexible power generation. All current ongoing builds are heavily subsidized, in multiple ways, only some of which is passed on to ratepayers.

    Demonstration of new technology is the sort of thing where governments could spend some money, but risking ratepayer money on this stuff is not an option. At the financial learning rate of renewables & storage (both distributed small-scale and large utility scale requiring more grid infrastructure) the financial case for nuclear gets tougher every year. According to analysts at Bloomberg, at current PV and battery pricing, outright grid defection (or at least load-defection, where doesn't cost much to be hooked up but not drawing much from the grid) is already financially rational in Australia, and will be in most of the high-priced parts of the US before 2030, and everywhere before 2050.

    If new renewables + storage is already cost effective against "cheap" legacy coal fired power in Australia, does nuclear even have a chance?

    Sure, France currently sells a lot of nuclear power to Germany- at night during off peak hours, and at a financial loss. During peak grid load Germany sells a lot of renewable power to France, especially during hot weather when the nukes have to throttle back to avoid heating up the rivers. It's the German grid propping up France, not the other way around. The grid interconnect between Germany isn't big enough to support much of Germany's base load with French nukes ( but they'll take that power when it's nearly free.) Germany sells quite a bit of it's own inflexible baseload power (mostly coal fired) to the Dutch and Danes at night. There is discussion about expanding that transmission grid connection between France & Germany, but the rationale for that is to better utilize Germany's excess generation capacity when France needs it instead of building more peakers in France.

    There's no credible case to be made that the high price of power in Germany has anything to do with retiring their nukes, or by their over-paying for their early PV feed-in tariffs. They clearly did overpay 10 years ago, but it's still a tiny fraction of the bill. The vast majority of the build-out was at a MUCH lower subsidy, and the presence of all of that zero-marginal cost renewables on the grid has lowered, not increased the wholesale price of electricity in Germany. Renewables have lowered the wholesale price to the point that some nukes and coal plants have been retired early on financial grounds, ahead of their mandated retirement dates.

    Smaller scale molten-salt reactors co-located with retired nukes that use-up the site-stored spent fuel rods of the older generation technology as it's source fuel has multiple rationales beyond the levelized cost of the electricity. If there is going to be a future to nuclear power in the US, that would be the right way to do it, since it leverages upon and reduces some of the as-yet-unpaid costs of the nuclear past.

    Without significant subsidy (that does not appear the per-kwh price of power) most of the world's nuclear fleet would never have been built. For a carbon-emissions solution to be effective, it has to be cost effective, and you can't even FUEL a nuke (let alone build and operate it) at the wholesale contract pricing of PV solar in 2015:

    For the case to be made, the nuclear industry needs to be able to show that it's at least at-parity with the levelized cost of wind & solar. Right now new-nuclear appears to be more expensive than (and far less flexible than) new large-scale PV. The storage issue is going to take care of itself soon enough, and the amount needed to run the grid without baseload power is far less than most armchair analysts might believe, when there is a pre-existing grid of sizeable geography (like the grid regions of the US.)

    The future of the grid isn't about nuclear vs. fossils, it's about the cost of low / no carbon power. For now nuclear seems to be losing the financial argument, independently of the safety & decommissioning/disposal issues.

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