Why Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer to Global Warming

There is no "nuclear renaissance” and there won't be: it just doesn't make sense economically.

Despite the triple meltdown at Fukushima—which has driven tens of thousands of Japanese from their homes, cast radioactive fallout across the U.S., and will likely cost the Japanese economy ¥50 trillion, or $623 billion—many desperate Greens now embrace nukes. They include Stewart Brand and George Monbiot. What drives these men is panic—a very legitimate fear that we will trigger self-fueling runaway climate change.

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Part of this green embrace of the atom is a macho performance of seriousness. Nuke hugging demonstrates a technophilic resolve, manly determination to muscle through. The semiotics of the green nuke huggers’ message is clear: “I am a man, an adult, ready to do whatever it takes to fight climate change. I have put aside childish utopianism and even endorsed this most dangerous, capital intensive, and war-tainted of technologies: atom smashing.”

So far, so very brave.

However, back in the real world, nukes face nearly insurmountable economichurdles. Never mind the issue of safety, economic factors—capital costs, construction cost, availability and prices of special metals and engineering expertise, and profitability—are the real issue. Economics will determine the future of atomic power—or rather, already have. And here is the takeaway: there will be no nuclear future.

For more than a decade, the atomic power industry and many in government have promised us a “nuclear renaissance.” A whole new fleet of atomic power plants, new high-tech third and fourth generation reactors, are supposed to be coming online.

Well, where is it? Climate change is kicking in; science tells us we need to make drastic cuts starting now. If nukes are to ride to the rescue, we need a few on the horizon now.

But the new fleet of reactors has not been built and won’t be, because Wall Street won’t fund them. The only way nukes get built is with real or de facto socialism. The public sector has to pick up the tab, either during construction or after the fact, when bankrupt utilities get bailed out.

The first wave of nuclear reactor construction peaked after the Arab oil embargo of 1973. The logic was geostrategic energy security, not cost-efficient electrical production. Japan and France built the most. Then came the Three Mile Island accident. Suddenly, the industry was subject to a more rigorous safety regime. With that costs rose precipitously, wiping out 90 percent of projected profits of theU.S. nuke industry. Hundreds of planned plants in the United States were canceled. In the United States and the United Kingdom, cost overruns on nuclear plants helped bankrupt several utility companies.

In February 2002, the Bush administration tried to jump-start nuclear construction with its “Nuclear Power 2010 Program,” a package of subsidies and streamlined planning procedures. Obama has continued this with more generous support for the nuclear industry. It was expected that these incentives would lead to at least one “Generation III+” unit being operational by 2010. That has not happened.

Work has finally begun on a two-reactor plant in Georgia. But already there are conflicts between the utility, Southern Company, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Moreover, this project is going forward only because the utility, operating on a cost-plus basis, can pass on to rate payers all of its expense overruns. This is because the Southeast power market was the only U.S. region never deregulated.

In Western Europe, nuclear economics are also a mess. Only two “Generation III+” reactors are under construction. The plant closest to completion is the 1,600-megawatt European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland. It was scheduled to take four years and cost about $5 billion. But now construction will take at least eight years and is 68 percent over budget, at a projected final cost of $8.4 billion.

The other EPR under construction is in Flamanville, France. It began in 2007 and is now two years late and at least 50 percent over budget. In the best case scenario, it will open in 2012, also massively over cost.

China has also cut back its nuke program, based almost entirely on the old generation two style plants. If the Chinese nuke program is fully built out the share of nukes in their overall power mix will go from less than 2 percent to less than 5 percent of all Chinese power.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy gives 2021 as the earliest possible date for a fourth-generation nuclear plant to open. No American nuclear plant has yet been built on time or within budget, so the forecast may be rather optimistic.

An authoritative study by the investment bank Lazard Ltd. found that wind beat nuclear and that nuclear essentially tied with solar. But wind and solar, being simple and safe, are coming on line faster. Another advantage wind and solar have is that capacity can be added bit by bit; a wind farm can have more or less turbines without scuttling the whole project. As economies of scale are created within the alternative energy supply chains and the construction process becomes more efficient, prices continue to drop. Meanwhile, the cost of stalled nukes moves upward.

The World Watch Institute reports that between 2004 and 2009, global electricity from wind (not capacity, but actual power output) grew by 27 percent, while solar grew by 54 percent. Over the same time, nuclear power output actually declined by half a percent.

What would a nuke build out really cost? Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Vermont Law School, has found that adding 100 new reactors to the U.S. power grid would cost $1.9 to $4.1 trillion, and that would take at least a decade to do.

In a comparative analysis of U.S. states, Cooper found that the states that invested heavily in nuclear power had worse track records on efficiency and developing renewables than those that did not have large nuclear programs. In other words, investing in nuclear technology crowded out developing clean energy.

Only when clean technologies—like wind, solar, hydropower, and electric vehicles—are cheaper than other options will the world economy make the switch away from fossil fuels. Right now, alternatives are slightly cheaper than nukes, come on line faster, and are growing robustly.

Nuclear power is not only physically dangerous—it is also economically wasteful. If the nuke huggers are so brave and serious they must begin to explain why, after a decade of billions in subsidies being on offer, there is no wave of construction underway. If the nuke renaissance is to begin, who will fund it? And who will build it in time to stave off climate tipping points? How long will it take? Thus the quip “Atomic power is the fuel of the future”—and always will be.

We have already wasted a decade on this blather and hype. Being manly is not enough. Realism is also required.

Christian Parenti is the author of "The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq" (New Press) and a visiting fellow at CUNY's Center for Place, Culture and Politics.