Nuclear Power and Energy Independence

A Reason Foundation roundtable

(Page 3 of 4)

The problem then is much less economics than politics. Both Wall Street and the utilities fear that, as soon as the first proposal comes out of the box, environmental and opposition groups will gang-tackle it, exploiting the public's fear about safety and nuclear "waste." Once again completion times will extend 10 years and beyond and costs will rise to $15 billion. In fact opposition groups are already challenging new proposals even before they reach the NRC licensing stage. "We're still in a situation where pretty much everybody wants to be second," notes Roger W. Gale, a former Energy Department official and now a utility consultant.

This is unfortunate because, as far as "nuclear waste" is concerned, the problem could readily be solved by reprocessing. Almost 100 percent of the material in a spent nuclear fuel rod can be recycled for additional fuel or industrial and medical isotopes. The problem is that America banned nuclear reprocessing in the 1970s under the illusion that it would somehow prevent nuclear weapons from proliferating around the world. Several countries have since built nuclear weaponry and it had nothing to do with plutonium from American reactors.

The French now have complete nuclear reprocessing and get one-third of their reactor fuel from spent rods. Other isotopes are extracted for commercial sale. The remaining "waste" is all stored beneath the floor of a single room in La Hague—25 years worth of producing 75 percent of France's electricity.

The fate of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository—which has been entirely funded by the industry through taxes on every kilo watt of energy generated over the last 20 years—is evidence of the power of opponents to derail nuclear. Thanks to them, the government has been hampered in completing the site on schedule and it will likely never become operational because of environmental opposition. Indeed, Exelon Corporation, which owns the largest fleet of reactors in the country, won a $300 million settlement from the Department of Energy for its failure on Yucca.

Now nuclear utilities have pioneered "dry cask storage," an on-site system that is good for at least 100 years. Because of nuclear's great "energy density"—the energy generated from a given volume, mass, or collection area—the waste generated by nuclear is vanishingly small. Three years worth of spent rods from a 1000-MW reactor can be stored in a cask four times the size of a telephone booth. But Greenpeace and the Nader organizations—who remain beguiled by the idea that an industrial economy can be run on so-called "renewable" energy—exploit NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) fears to oppose nuclear plants housing on-site disposal. This has injected uncertainty and made nuclear power too risky to justify the high up-front investment.

Some free market advocates bring up the Price Anderson Act that caps the liability of the industry in case of accidents to question its viability. They maintain that if the industry had to buy full insurance, it would make nuclear power uneconomical compared to other fuels. But the fact of the matter is that caps on liability are in no way unique to nuclear. The coal mining industry also benefited from liability caps against black lung disease. Major hydroelectric dams around the country carry no liability insurance because they are all federally or municipally owned and exempted by sovereign immunity. If anything, the nuclear industry carries far more insurance than any other industry. Under Price-Anderson, every reactor in the country can be assessed $100 million for an accident by another reactor. That puts total coverage for any accident at $10 billion. As the industry says: "We are all hostages to each other." That's despite the fact that coal kills 30,000 people a year according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, whereas Chernobyl—a bizarre foul-up that will never happen again—claimed only 60 lives directly attributable to the disaster.

The current problem with nuclear is not its underlying economics but the current political climate in the U.S. that is hostile to nuclear and doesn't offer a level playing field. Coal is familiar and politically entrenched and so people don't question the danger it poses. Solar and renewables are showered with subsidies and mandates because they have won popular favor even though they are very low density energy sources.

The real solution then to making nuclear energy economically feasible may lie in changing the popular perception of nuclear as forbidding and dangerous. People should consider nuclear as natural as the ground beneath their feet (hence I have titled my forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy). The slow breakdown of uranium atoms is what heats the core of the earth to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. When we build a nuclear reactor, we are only reproducing this process in an isolated environment. Yet it is so powerful that its environmental impact is 2 million times smaller than fossil fuels or the various forms of renewable energy. If powering the world with virtually no environmental impact can't be made economical, what can be?

William Tucker is an award-winning journalist whose book, Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey, has just been published by Bartleby Press.

Jerry Taylor: Nuclear Energy: Risky Business

Nuclear energy is to the Right what solar energy is to the Left: Religious devotion in practice, a wonderful technology in theory, but an economic white elephant in fact (some crossovers on both sides notwithstanding). When the day comes that the electricity from solar or nuclear power plants is worth more than the costs associated with generating it, I will be as happy as the next Greenpeace member (in the case of the former) or MIT graduate (in the case of the latter) to support either technology. But that day is not on the horizon and government policies can't accelerate the economic clock.

Many free market advocates support nuclear because it costs less to generate nuclear power than it does to generate electricity from any other source (save, perhaps, hydroelectric power), thanks to nuclear's low operation and maintenance costs. However, someone has to first pay for—and build—these plants and the rub is that nuclear has very high, upfront construction costs ranging from $6-9 billion. By contrast, gas plants cost only a few hundred million dollars to build and coal a couple of billion depending upon the capacity and type of plant.

This raises the opportunity and risk costs of nuclear, making it unattractive to investors. Capital-intensive power facilities take longer to build, which means that investors have to defer returns for longer than if they had invested elsewhere. What's more, electricity markets have a very peculiar pricing mechanism that makers it harder for nuclear to maximize returns compared to gas-powered or other plants. In essence, there are two electricity markets: a market for base-load power (electricity sold 24-hours a day) and a market for peak power (electricity sold as needed during peak demand periods like hot summer days). Much of the demand for new power—and thus much of the profit available to investors today—is found in the peak market. But nuclear power plant construction costs are so high that it would take a very, very long time for nuclear facilities to pay for themselves if they only operated during high demand periods. Hence, nuclear power plants are only profitable in base-load markets. Gas-fired power plants, on the other hand, can be profitable in either market because not only are their upfront costs low but it is much easier to turn them off or on unlike nuclear.

Nuclear's high up-front costs don't just mean delayed profits, it also makes nuclear a more risky investment, especially since 20 states have scrapped policies that used to allow investors to charge rates that would guarantee their money back. This means that investors in new nuclear power plants are making a multi-billion dollar bet on disciplined construction schedules, accurate cost estimates, and the future economic health of the region. Bet wrong on any of the above and the company may well go bankrupt. Bet wrong on a gas-fired power plant, on the other hand, and corporate life will go on because there is less to lose given that the construction costs associated with gas-fired power plants are a small fraction of those associated with nuclear plants.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • DannyK||

    Nice! I should print out and laminate Jerry Tucker's post for future reference.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yes, and now nuclear energy is funky!

  • ||

    I find myself agreeing with both. Nuclear is great, and subsidies should be removed. I think we will end up with nuclear power - but we should be in no rush to do so immediately. Technology will make this power source viable, and rushing in with early generation tech will only lock us in to expensive energy. Let the Frogs and the Finns subsidize nuclear. When we need it, we can liscense the best solution that emerges.

  • Darrel||

    Frogs with Fins? This nucular thing can't be good.

  • Kaiser||

    Slightly OT:

    I am a firm disbeliever of man made global climate change. I am not however against alternative energies. I just don't think tax payers dollars should be going anywhere near funding alternative energies. I am a big fan of nuclear energy and have been or a long time, but I do realize the down sides to it as well. It seems to me though that people want a "cure all" when it comes to alternative energies. Something that will just replace fossil fuels but in reality we need a combination of all of them to sustain what fuel has done for us.

    Let us not forget too that IF we could completely replace all of our energy usage with alternative methods, we would still need crude oil and lots of it. Many people forget or don't realize that (I don't want to quote percentages here because I don't know for sure) a lot of our crude oil goes to things that have nothing to do with energy. Rubber, nylon, vinyl, plastics, many synthetics, ASPIRIN ffs, etc the list goes on.

  • ||

    As a nuclear design engineer, I'm ever so pissed off at Jane Fonda and Barack Obama.

    Nuclear is anathema only to those who have no fucking clue how it works. The average person is completely clueless when it comes to energy generation and words like nuclear just sound scary.

    If I see another anti-air pollution advertisement depicting a power plant's cooling towers releasing clean water vapor I'm going to choke a vegan.

  • Brandybuck||

    Considering that it's gum'mit that's dragging down nuclear power, I'm quite sure it would be quite sustainable without their intervention.

  • Kolohe||

    Excellent articles. Two small things:

    1) Is it just me, or did Ms Dalmia assiduously avoid taking a stand? Or was she the 'moderator'? (no pun intended. ok yes it was.)

    2) Mr Taylor's assement that a carbon tax would be $2 per ton seems a little lowball to me. I recall seeing figures of around $10 per ton (which itself seemed a little low end) when Lieberman/Warner was being debated.

  • Kaiser||


    That is another thing about nuclear energy that pisses me off. So many people view it as an evil entity, associate it with things like bombs and chernobyl. Keep in mind I am just a laymen here but as I understand it it is merely steam. The reaction from the plutonium or whatever is used basically just super heats water and the steam created powers turbines etc etc. Maybe we should re-name it, sort of like how they re-named the bailout to rescue.

  • nonPaulogist||

    Nobody knows whether or not it would be a good idea to expand nuclear power because the price information that should be provided by the free market is absent.

    As a former Navy Nuke, I know that Nuclear regulation is excessive and misguided.

    Everybody is just guessing. McCain's central planning is almost certainly calling for a less than optimal solution. We might need more Nuke plants and we might need less, but McCain's call for 45 is just pulling a number out of a hat.

  • ||

    When I was in colorado they started dismantling rocky flats. Needless to say, the press coverage was less than nook-u-lar friendly. I guess people equate power plants using uranium with spilling tanks full of Plutonium solution into the groundwater.

  • TallDave||

    Yet, despite all this government prompting, investors do not seem very confident about undertaking the risks.

    Well, given that all their work will probably be wasted if Obama is elected, you can't really blame them for ebing cautious.

    The latest generation of nuke plant designs can compete, if the government will get out of their way.

    What's scary is that the global warming people and the anti-nuke may be in charge. This is a recipe for nationwide blackouts starting in a few years -- and it will take a long time to fix.


    Did you know there's a Navy fusion project that might give us cheap fusion power? Another libertarian Navy nuke has been writing about it quite a bit.

  • Alice Bowie||

    Nuclear energy SHOULD BE AVOIDED !!!

    Keep Dope Alive !!!

    John McCains plan to build 45 Nuclear Plants right here in America would HELP our enemys

    There will be no need for Iran, Russia, and our next enemy to invest a penny in nuclear technology...The BOMBs would be right here waiting for our enemys to blow them up and make several miles around the plants uninhabitable for 100s of years.

    What do we do with the waste
    Yea Yea Yea ... it's safe ... i'm just a wimp and a tree hugger. I think it sounds stupid.

    Where would they put these SAFE Nuclear Bombs (i mean plants) ???

    You can be sure that it would be near the POOR minority where near McCain, Bush, Cheney, etc.

  • Alice Bowie||

    I know you Macho Men see me as a little wimp. I should be strong...Like Macho Man Adolph Guiliani...

    He wasn't afraid of Terrorist. In fact, to prove to the world how he wasn't going to let terrorist get in his way...He setup NYC Emergency Command Center in the World Trade Center....STUPID IDEA.

    I saw Guiliani on 9/11, running for his life right next to me...He wasn't TOO MACHO THEN.

  • ||

    "Yet it is so powerful that its environmental impact is 2 million times smaller than fossil fuels or the various forms of renewable energy."

    William Tucker with a gigantic math FAIL. That sentence makes no sense.

  • Neu Mejican||

    I am a firm disbeliever of man made global climate change.

    What an odd thing to have a "firm" disbelief in.
    I can understand a skeptical stance, but a firm disbelief?

    Nuclear is unlikely to become the power source of choice without active subsidies.

    Isn't it time we forgot about nuclear power? Informed capitalists have. Politicians and pundits should too. After more than half a century of devoted effort and a half-trillion dollars of public subsidies, nuclear power still can't make its way in the market. If we accept that unequivocal verdict, we can at last get on with the best buys first: proven and ample ways to save more carbon per dollar, faster, more surely, more securely, and with wider consensus. As often before, the biggest key to a sound climate and security strategy is to take market economics seriously.

  • nonPaulogist||

    Thanks for the heads up, Tall Dave. I'll check it out.

  • ARM Legal||

    Uranium is down to $44/lb - also the nuclear fuel cycle includes serious costs in the mining of uranium especial In Situ Leach mining in the aquifers because release of contaminants gets to drinking water and harms the people and environment. So, the economics need to include some measure for the damage caused by uranium mining especially when fuel is not recycled.

    These are excellent discussions - I can say first hand that the NRC has a giant rubber stamp and they approve most things with no real questions asked unless there has been a spill, leak, or citizen action.

    Today, in fact, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant had to be evacuated due to radioactive leaks when a cover was being changed.

    The only reason these nuclear power merchants have made so much loot is that the construction costs were off-loaded to electricity rate payers as so-called "stranded-costs" when the companies went bankrupt after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the actual plants could then be bought for about 1x annual revenues.

    It should also be stated that most uranium companies and nuclear companies are foreign owned and/or foreign controlled.

  • Daniel Reeves||

    If Tucker's point is that nuclear energy costs a lot... that's true. But as of now it's the most efficient enviro-friendly energy source in terms of capital.

    Alice Brown, I'd rather have a nuclear power plant by my house than a coal power plant. Only in Russia has a nuclear power plant ever killed anyone, and even that was less than 100 people. Never in the U.S. Never. This is in contrast to the thousands that die from coal emissions every year in the U.S.

  • ||

    The thing that pisses me off is that the environmentalists talk out of both sides of their mouths on Yucca Mountain. They make this intellectually dishonest argument that goes something like this:
    1. Say that it's unsafe because of the radioactive waste.
    2. Say you'll support it when there's a long term solution for storing waste.
    2. Oppose any and all efforts to construct a long-term waste storage facility.

    That allows them to continue to pretend to be reasonable by claiming they just want nuclear power to be "safer", while simultaneously being totally fucking dishonest shits who are simply out to make sure that no nuclear plants ever get built because of some kind of insane attachment to the belief that radiation is evil.

    Not only that, but by diverting us into arguing over long-term storage facilities, it detracts from the much more important point that radiation isn't NEARLY as dangerous as they have painted it as.

    The next time some anti-nuck wack job comes out arguing against Yucca Mountain, we should say okay, we're fine with that cause radiation isn't that big a deal.

    After all, even if it did excape after 10,000 years, all it would do is cause a marginal increase in lifetime cancer rates.

  • ||

    Why isn't anyone talking about uranium, where it comes from and how much of it is still left to pillage?

    Both experts fail to mention that uranium mining does not have a great track record at being "clean". In countries such as Niger, where international environmental and health standards are not imposed, uranium mining has been devastating to local populations and the environment.

    And given that uranium is mostly imported, I'm not sure how anyone can talk about nuclear contributing to "energy independence".

    Lastly, experts estimate that at the current level of nuclear production, there are about 80 years worth of uranium reserves left in the world. So if this nuclear renaissance were really to take place, I guess it would be short lived.

  • ||

    My concerns about nuclear energy (apart from the usual wepaons and waste stuff):
    Convnetional nuke power uses 20% more water than conventional coal energy. Where are we going to get the additional water?

    Conventional nuke power requires tremendous amounts of skilled labor to design, construct, manage, and maintain. Where will tha t labor come from?

    As mentioned above, the international market for uranium sets the base price. How would we become 'independent' based on an international commodity?

    90% of NEW energy plants today in the US are Natual Gas based. How does the nuclear industry plan to compete against that without subsidies?

  • ~A||

    Natural gas is only really used for peak power needs, not baseload production. The options for baseload production are pretty much nuclear and coal. Take your pick on whether the downsides of one are worse than the others.

  • ||

    That's true. It is also true that NatGas plants start/stop quicker, and can respond to demand quicker either than nuclear or coal...thus there is less waste as compared with leaving the latter two on standby all the time. And NatGas can be made smaller and more distributed. Conventional nuke power needs to get Unconventional before it can compete imo.

    For alternative renewable baseload I would fight for advanced Geothermal and wave/tide power...maybe unconventional (high altitude) wind energy

  • ||

    Could points.
    First, I'm not sure that 20% figure reflects the total water usage or just per plant. If it is per plant, then it is an advantage, since nuclear plants produce many times more electricitry than a typical coal plant. Besides, a 20% increase in water consumption is realtively benign compared with all the pollution produced by coal. Moreover, the water is just heated and discharged, so it's going back into the environment pretty clean anyway.

    Second, labor isn't really an issue. Most of the jobs would in in construction. There's a shortage of skilled engineers in the US, but that's been that way for decades. Hire Indians. They are familiar with nuclear technology, and don't pose a threat to the US.

    Thirdly, natural gas is only clean when compared to coal. It eliminates some of the more hazardous emissions leading to acid-rain, and produces a bit less CO2, but you're still basically burning fossil fuels.

  • ||

    Hazel Meade,
    That figure is per Therm or KW/hr.

    Warmer water can actually be very bad for any thing otherwise alive down stream.

    Which brings up another point. Droughts lower river water levels which warms up river et al temperatures. Nuke plants have been shut down because of this, until river temps lowered.

    To be fair this is a very awkward detail for any energy source which requires a water medium.

    Unconventional nuke power may devise a work around. But we can hardly get new nuke plants up within a decade; unconventional nuke plants will take longer. Wishing won't make it so.

    Labor is an actual issue. While laergely unskilled construction labor is abundant, critical skilled labor in nuclear engineering and administration for existing plants aren't being fulfilled. Few new graduates want to work in Nuclear Energy.

    Any conventional power plant is cleaner than coal. And we are discussing 'energy independence' in this thread more than emissions controls.

  • Douglas Gray||

    A breast cancer map from Centers for Disease Control showsthat within a 100-mile radius of nuclear reactors, two-thirds of all U.S. breast cancer deaths occurred between 1985 and 1989. This map of nuclear power plants in the U.S. identifies them as the major cause of breast cancer in the U.S., as well as nuclear weapons labs in New Mexico, Idaho, Washington and California.

    Cancer clustering is nothing new. At one plant back East, after five years of operation, the cancer death rate was nearly 60% higher.

    Even low level radiation in the water near Navajo reservations has caused a spike in cancer.

    So, if you don't mind a little more cancer, nuclear plants are OK.

  • ||

    Most of Mr. Taylor's arguments about nuclear being uncompetitive do not hold water. He lists all the ways nuclear may be subsidized, but then deliberately ignores much larger subsidies that are recieved by other sources. Fossil fuels recieve more subsidies than nuclear, and renewables recieve vastly larger subsidies per kW-hr of generation (along with outright mandates for their use).

    And that's just the direct monetary subsidies. The largest subsidy of all is fossil fuels' priveledge of just dumping all their wastes/toxins directly into the environment, for free. Nuclear has to spend massive sums to prevent even a tiny chance of this happening. Western nuclear plants have never killed a member of the public, or had any measurable public health impact, over their entire ~40-year history. Fossil plants (mainly coal) cause ~25,000 deaths every single year in the US alone (hundreds of thousands worldwide) and they are the leading cause of global warming. And yet, they don't have to pay a dime in compensation (let alone prevention). The ANNUAL environmental, health and monetary impacts of fossil fuel plants vastly exceed the total impact of a severe meltdown event (the thing that Price Anderson insures against).

    Whereas nuclear's total external (environmental and health) costs (including mining, accident risk and waste management, etc..) are estimated to amount to only a fraction of a cent/kW-hr. Meanwhile the external (pollution) costs of fossil fuels are enormous (~6 cents/kW-hr, enough to double coal's price). If you add this "free pollution" subsidy to the direct economic subsidies they recieve, one finds that fossil fuels are much more expensive than nuclear. The only sources nuclear has not been able to "compete" with are dirty conventional fossil fuels, and this is only because their massive external costs are not counted.

    The fact that external costs (mainly those of fossil fuels) are not included in the market price is the biggest problem (failure) of current energy markets. The best thing to do would be to tax or limit CO2 emissions, air pollution, and foreign energy imports (mainly oil and gas), and see what happens. Let the market then decide what to build.

    Nuclear would do just fine in such a scenario. Coal would be rendered uncompetitive. As people try to replace coal with gas, the price of gas (which is already starting to run out in North America) will increase dramaticallly. As a result, nuclear will easily be able to compete with gas for baseload generation. As for renewables, not only are they not any cheaper than nuclear, their intermittentcy will limit their practical use to ~25% of total generation, at most. We still will need traditional plants for the remaining 75%.

    The bottom line, if we ever put hard limits on CO2 emissions, nuclear's future is very bright, even with no subsidies. To anyone who would disagree I say, "let's find out".

  • ||

    I was with you until this:
    "As for renewables, not only are they not any cheaper than nuclear, their intermittentcy will limit their practical use to ~25% of total generation, at most. We still will need traditional plants for the remaining 75%."

    Intermittence can be resolved at low cost through smart grid, and by battery (of some type) backup. ('battery backup' includes, pumped water reservoirs, compressed air, etc, not just chemical batteries.)

    Not all renewable energies are intermittent. Solar Thermal, GeoThermal, Wave/tide, and high altitude Wind are all 24/7/365 energy sources. If we try, the development and broad installation of these will take less than the 15 years it takes from initial investment of a Nuke plant to it's first sale of energy.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.