Nuclear Energy More Expensive Than Some Clean Power, Study Says

Growing support for nuclear energy in the U.S. has hinged on three key arguments in recent years: It offers a carbon-free alternative to coal; a domestic alternative to petroleum; and a supposedly cheaper, more reliable alternative to renewable sources like wind and solar. But according to a new analysis from Climate Progress, existing nuclear power plant technology can generate electricity at no less than $0.25 to $0.30 per kilowatt-hour (including fuel and O&M, excluding distribution) for the first year of operation.

Costs would drop slightly in following years, but that’s triple today’s average utility rate, about 10 times the estimated per-kilowatt-hour cost of efficiency-boosting measures, and more than some generation costs for existing renewable energy technologies.

As a result of the research, Climate Progress, which is published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said it may nix nuclear energy from the 14 “stabilization wedges” included in its proposed climate change response. The current list suggests 700 gigawatts of nuclear energy plus radioactive waste storage capacity equivalent to 10 Yucca mountains.

In addition to assessing business risks for new nuclear power facilities, study author Craig Severance set out to clarify the notion that short-sighted, anti-nuclear environmentalists halted carbon-free energy development. High costs, he writes, have thwarted nuclear all along:

Utility executives and Wall Street financiers were the ones who stopped nuclear power’s expansion in the 1970’s. As more evidence of the business risks and the costs associated with nuclear power became clear through  utilities’ own experiences, utility boards across the country, and the financial houses who fund them, stopped  considering  nuclear power a serious future option. Orders for new plants that had already been advanced, were quietly withdrawn. The nuclear industry simply failed to compete against other available options, whose risks and costs were significantly lower.

Climate Progress challenged nuclear energy advocates today to go beyond touting relatively low operating costs for paid-off nuclear plants, and provide detailed documentation of cost estimates for energy from new facilities. As for next-generation nuclear technology (like Hyperion’s nuclear-in-a-hot-tub-sized-box device), Climate Progress considers it a fine idea — and worth pursuing — but not likely to help us meet 2020 or even 2030 greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets.

As Time’s Michael Grunwald noted last week, “It turns out that new plants would be not just extremely expensive but spectacularly expensive.” The fallout from overly optimistic early estimates can now be felt around the world, from Finland, where costs have ballooned and progress slowed at a nuclear plant, to Florida, where a plant planned for just off the Keys could cost up to $18 billion.

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