A recent letter to President Obama supporting nuclear energy was composed and signed by many people whom I have no doubt are genuinely distinguished and dedicated energy experts, and who I’m certain all sincerely and ethically follow their best lights on this subject. I’d like to supply some contrasting perspective.
In my estimation, there are six major factors that bear consideration in any complete discussion of the pursuit of nuclear energy:
1) Plant Lifespan
Earlier this year, IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Energy Yury Sokolov stressed the need for effective plant life management, “This is especially important as the world’s fleet of 439 nuclear power plants has been operating, on average, for more than 20 years,” he said. “Even though the design life of a nuclear power plant is typically for 30 or 40 years, it is quite feasible that many nuclear power plants will be able to operate in excess of their design lives,” he added.
Sokolov’s statement clearly acknowledges that – without significant repair, replacement and/or modification of the ‘selection of safety related mechanical components and systems’ (SSCs) – the average life remaining in these existing 439 plants worldwide is only another 10 to 20 years.
Should we build more?
2) Construction Costs
The book “The Nuclear Energy Option” by Bernard L. Cohen, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, published in 1990 by Plenum Press, explores the exploding costs of nuclear plant construction:
Several large nuclear power plants were completed in the early 1970s at a typical cost of $170 million, whereas plants of the same size completed in 1983 cost an average of $1.7 billion, a 10-fold increase. Some plants completed in the late 1980s have cost as much as $5 billion, 30 times what they cost 15 years earlier. Inflation, of course, has played a role, but the consumer price index increased only by a factor of 2.2 between 1973 and 1983, and by just 18% from 1983 to 1988. What caused the remaining large increase? Ask the opponents of nuclear power and they will recite a succession of horror stories, many of them true, about mistakes, inefficiency, sloppiness, and ineptitude.
For example, Commonwealth Edison, the utility serving the Chicago area, completed its Dresden nuclear plants in 1970-71 for $146/kW, its Quad Cities plants in 1973 for $164/kW, and its Zion plants in 1973-74 for $280/kW. But its LaSalle nuclear plants completed in 1982-84 cost $1,160/kW, and its Byron and Braidwood plants completed in 1985-87 cost $1880/kW — a 13-fold increase over the 17-year period. Northeast Utilities completed its Millstone 1,2, and 3 nuclear plants, respectively, for $153/kW in 1971, $487/kW in 1975, and $3,326/kW in 1986, a 22-fold increase in 15 years. Duke Power, widely considered to be one of the most efficient utilities in the nation in handling nuclear technology, finished construction on its Oconee plants in 1973-74 for $181/kW, on its McGuire plants in 1981-84 for $848/kW, and on its Catauba plants in 1985-87 for $1,703/kW, a nearly 10-fold increase in 14 years. Philadelphia Electric Company completed its two Peach Bottom plants in 1974 at an average cost of $382 million, but the second of its two Limerick plants, completed in 1988, cost $2.9 billion — 7.6 times as much. A long list of such price escalations could be quoted, and there are no exceptions.
Apart from doubled labor costs and the significant role of inflation – and the aforementioned “mistakes, inefficiency, sloppiness, and ineptitude” – Professor Cohen goes on to lay the blame on construction delays and extra expenses for safety and quality control as a result of government regulation.
Of course, in a democratic republic, regulation is moved by the will of the people, and was demanded in response to public sentiment following notable disasters, and the revelations about the role of mechanical failures and human error in those disasters – as well as the public perception of the dangers and costs involved with the entire nuclear industry from start to finish.
What happens at the finish line for these plants?
In addition to the soaring costs of constructing nuclear plants, and their relatively brief lifespan, Herculean efforts are required to attempt to render them harmless when they are dead.
According to the Encyclopedia of the Earth in a “content partnership” with the World Nuclear Association:
Generally speaking, early nuclear plants were designed for a life of about 30 years, though some have proved capable of continuing well beyond this. Newer plants are designed for a 40 to 60 year operating life. At the end of the life of any power plant, it is necessary to decommission and demolish the facility so that the site can be made available for other uses. For nuclear plants, the term ‘decommissioning’ includes all clean-up of radioactivity and progressive dismantling of the plant.
The EOE/WNA article notes that the International Atomic Energy Agency has defined three options for decommissioning:
Entombment: This option entails placing the facility into a condition that will allow the remaining on-site radioactive material to remain on-site without the requirement of ever removing it totally. This option usually involves reducing the size of the area where the radioactive material is located and then encasing the facility in a long-lived structure such as concrete, that will last for a period of time to ensure the remaining radioactivity is no longer of concern.
Safe Enclosure (or Safestor): This option postpones the final removal of controls for a longer period, usually in the order of 40 to 60 years. The facility is placed into a safe storage configuration until the eventual dismantling and decontamination activities occur.
Immediate Dismantling (or Early Site Release/Decon in the US): This option allows for the facility to be removed from regulatory control relatively soon after shutdown or termination of regulated activities. Usually, the final dismantling or decontamination activities begin within a few months or years, depending on the facility. Following removal from regulatory control, the site is then available for re-use.
Of course, any irradiated and radioactive materials that are removed from a nuclear plant must then be stored until they no longer pose a threat to living things. The safe storage of these materials is a leading cause of justified apprehension, as are the threats to human health and the biosphere that are posed by the mining and refining of uranium – not to mention the inherent dangers involved in operating a nuclear facility.
Simply regarding the steel used in plant construction, the article also notes:
Apart from any surface contamination of the plant, the remaining radioactivity comes from “activation products” such as steel components that have long been exposed to neutron irradiation. Their atoms are changed into different isotopes such as iron-55, cobalt-60, nickel-63, and carbon-14. The first two are highly radioactive, emitting gamma rays. However, their half life is such that after 50 years after closedown, their radioactivity is significantly diminished and the risk to workers largely gone.
This explains the handing down of the burden past two or three generations in the “Safestor” option. The article goes on to assure readers that this steel, with its “activation products,” can be recycled for the construction of other nuclear power plants.
The article concludes that an estimated $35.3 billion (in 2001 dollars) will be needed just to decommission the existing 104 US reactors (on the basis of an average of $320 million per unit).
Even despite the short life and the costs of construction and decommissioning, is nuclear power realistically a long term solution?
4) Nuclear Fuel
Wikipedia references several sources in discussing uranium ore – the basic fuel for nuclear plants:
The ultimate available uranium is believed to be sufficient for at least the next 85 years  although some studies indicate under investment in the late twentieth century may produce supply problems in the 21st century.  Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Ian D. MacGregor point out that uranium deposits seem to be log-normal distributed. There is a 300-fold increase in the amount of uranium recoverable for each tenfold decrease in ore grade.  In other words, there is little high grade ore and proportionately much more low grade ore available.
“Global Uranium Resources to Meet Projected Demand”. International Atomic Energy Agency. 2006.
“Lack of fuel may limit U.S. nuclear power expansion”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2007-03-21.
“World Uranium Resources”. Scientific American. p. 66.
So the best-case scenario for uranium resources leaves us at the end of the nuclear road looking for alternatives by the end of this century, with the resulting issues of massive cost, toxicity and storage of the useless plants and their waste simply remaining for future generations to deal with.
But what are some indications of the worst case scenario for nuclear power?
Democracy Now reported this not long ago:
In a book published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a Russian author and a Belarusian author say nearly one million people have died from exposure to radiation released by the Chernobyl reactor. According to the book, the disaster’s radioactive emissions may have been 200 times greater than the initial estimate of 50 million Curies, and hundreds of times larger than the radioactivity from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The authors based their findings in part on Slavic sources they say have never been available in English.
This book is described as follows on the New York Academy of Sciences website:
Written by leading authorities from Eastern Europe, the volume outlines the history of the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. According to the authors, official discussions from the International Atomic Energy Agency and associated United Nations’ agencies (e.g. the Chernobyl Forum reports) have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings reported in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments.
Chernobyl was, of course, not the intended result of the designers. It was instead a result of the inherent risk of human error while attempting to control and exploit a fission reaction to produce heat and generate electricity.
Three Mile Island was likewise not the intent of plant designers and operators, but mechanical failures and human error led to a partial core meltdown.
Both these events occurred when the reactors in question were less than five years old – before age and wear of materials and components were yet a factor. The degree to which that risk will be elevated as our 104 plants age out is an unknown.
Is nuclear power worth the cost and the risks?
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service had this to say about insuring nuclear power plants:
At the dawn of the atomic age, the insurance industry’s refusal to fully insure the nuclear industry created the need for federal intervention. Congress gave the infant technology protection against potentially enormous liability claims in the event of a nuclear accident, a benefit no other U.S. industry ever has received.
Offered originally as 10-year temporary training wheels, ‘to encourage the private development of nuclear power’ (ANI [American Nuclear Insurers] testimony) the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 has now provided the atomic industry with a permanent wheelchair for financial immunity from mistakes and accidents that can environmentally devastate whole countries, cripple economies and sicken entire populations.
Without this liability shelter, nuclear reactors would never have split the first atom. ANI recognized this when it testified “the Act has been critical in enabling us to provide stable, high quality insurance capacity for nuclear risks in the face of normally overwhelming obstacles for insurers—those obstacles being catastrophic loss potential, the absence of credible predictability…without the “ups and downs” (or market cycles) that have affected nearly all other lines of insurance.” Left to market forces, the nuclear industry is uninsurable and financially non-viable.
Last amended in 1988, the Price-Anderson Act is a fairly complicated system in which nuclear utilities—as a group—purchase a small level of insurance for accidents (currently $200 million). For damages above that, each reactor would be assessed $10 million per year for about 7.5 years. The total amount available to compensate accident damages thus depends on how many reactors are operating. [In 2002,] proposed reauthorization of Price-Anderson in the House of Representatives would increase the assessment to $15 million per year per reactor – for a total pot currently of about $12 billion.
A 1982 Sandia National Laboratories study, leaked to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), quantified the consequences of a catastrophic nuclear power accident in the US. Besides potentially causing thousands of early deaths and cancers, an accident could cause as much as $313 billion in damages, or about $600 billion today with inflation. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident has cost Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia an estimated $350 billion.
The Price-Anderson Act was renewed again in 2005 for an additional 20 years.
All these six factors weigh heavily against any nuclear power plant of scale – with one exception: that’s the one our only home has revolved around every single year for over 5 billion years.
As I’ve written countless times, I believe that the US needs to harness its technologic and economic capacity to deploy a geographically diverse set of solar thermal plants across the vastness of its southwestern deserts, store surplus energy as required with molten salt, and transmit that constant, baseload energy to its population centers with high voltage DC. There is no dispute that such a project would require an enormous commitment. Nor is there dispute that it represents a political impossibility. But that, nonetheless, is what we should do.