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The Nuclear Option Revisited

Too expensive and unacceptably risky, nuclear power was declared dead long ago. So why would we resurrect it?

July 08, 2001|AMORY B. LOVINS and L. HUNTER LOVINS | Amory B. and L. Hunter Lovins, co-CEOs of Rocky Mountain Institute, advise energy companies and governments worldwide

SNOWMASS, Colo. — Buoyed by a supportive White House, growing climate concerns, temporarily high gas prices, and California's electricity mess, the nuclear industry is running an all-out public-relations campaign to resuscitate its product. This attempt ignores one crucial fact: Nuclear power already died of an incurable attack of market forces. Once touted as "too cheap to meter," nuclear power, as The Economist recently concluded, now looks "too costly to matter."

Overwhelmed by huge construction and repair costs around the world, nuclear plants ended up achieving less than 10% of the capacity and 1% of the new orders (all from countries with centrally planned energy systems) forecast a quarter-century ago. The industry has suffered the greatest collapse of any enterprise in industrial history.

Beyond the hard economic facts, about which more later, the nuclear industry is dismissing legitimate public concerns about the risks of a technology so unforgiving that, as Nobel physicist Hannes Alfven wrote, "No acts of God can be permitted." Each nuclear plant, through accident or malice, could release enough radioactivity to hazard a continent. This is presented by the industry as extremely unlikely, but many citizens aren't reassured. They have seen too many highly improbable events, including terrorism. And if nuclear power plants are so safe, why would the industry build and run them only if the federal government passed a law limiting operators' liability in major accidents? Why should the nuclear industry enjoy a liability cap that reduces its incentive for safety, distorts choices with a vast subsidy and is unavailable to any other industry? Why can't nuclear operators self-insure and put their money where their mouths are, or buy insurance at market prices like everyone else? The liability law's expiration in 2002 presents an awkward dilemma for advocates of both nuclear power and free markets.

Scientists still haven't developed reliable ways to handle nuclear wastes and decommissioned plants, which remain dangerously radioactive for far longer than societies last or geological foresight extends. And experts feel nuclear power's gravest risk is that power plants can provide ingredients and innocent-seeming civilian cover for the development of nuclear bombs, as was the case in India and elsewhere. Now the White House proposes to revive nuclear-fuel reprocessing after decades of proof that it's unprofitable, unnecessary, a complication to nuclear waste management and a source of vast amounts of bomb material.

Market economics provides an even more basic argument: "If a thing is not worth doing," said economist John Maynard Keynes, "it is not worth doing well." Leaving aside bomb-proliferation, waste, sabotage and uninsurable accidents, nuclear power is simply uncompetitive and unnecessary. After a trillion-dollar taxpayer investment, it delivers little more energy in the U.S. than wood. Globally, it produces severalfold less energy than renewable sources. The market prefers other options. In the 1990s, global nuclear capacity rose by 1% a year, compared with 17% for solar cells (24% last year) and 24% for wind power--which has lately added about 5,000 megawatts a year worldwide, as compared with the 3,100 new megawatts nuclear power averaged annually in the 1990s. The decentralized generators California added in the 1990s have more capacity than its two giant nuclear plants--whose debts triggered the restructuring that created the state's current utility mess.

Enthusiasts claim new-style reactors might deliver a kilowatt-hour to your meter for 5 cents, compared with 10 to 15 cents for post-1980 nuclear plants worldwide. (Of that, 10 to 15 cents, nearly 3 cents pays for delivery, about 2 cents for running the plant, and the rest for its construction and for occasional major repairs.) But on the same accounting basis, superefficient gas plants or wind farms cost only 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, cogeneration of heat and power often 1 to 5 cents, and efficient lights, motors and other electricity-saving devices under 2 cents, often under 1 cent. Cogeneration and efficiency are especially cheap because they occur at the site where the energy is consumed and thus require no delivery.

All these non-nuclear options continue to get cheaper, as do fuel cells and solar cells. Today, a pound of silicon can produce more electricity than a pound of nuclear fuel. Already, Sacramento's municipal utility, which has successfully replaced power from its ailing nuclear plant (shut down by voters) with a portfolio emphasizing efficiency and renewables, has brought the heretofore costliest option, solar cells, down to costs competitive with a new nuclear plant.

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