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Summary:

Researchers are already predicting how the nuclear disaster in Japan will affect the nuclear industry. According to Mark Cooper, a senior fellow at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and Environment, construction costs of nuclear reactors are likely to soar for awhile.

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The nuclear situation in Japan is still not under control, and reports of exposed workers, contaminated food, and possible leaking reactor cores continue to come out of the pummeled nation. But researchers are already predicting how the disaster will affect the nuclear industry and — according to Mark Cooper, a senior fellow at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and Environment — construction costs of nuclear reactors for the foreseeable future will soar following the problems in Japan.

“If they do what they are supposed to, nuclear reactor construction will be much more costly and much less inviting as a policy option as a result of the Fukusima accident,” said Cooper in a research note.

According to Cooper’s research, the construction costs for reactors after Three Mile Island (the nuclear incident in 1979 in Pennsylvania), but before Chernobyl (the incident in 1986 in Ukraine) were 95 percent higher than those completed before Three Mile Island. That resulted in electricity costs that were 40 percent higher. The construction costs of the reactors constructed after Chernobyl were 89 percent higher than those completed between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which delivered electricity costs 42 percent higher.

It’s not rocket science to realize that major disasters would cause extra safety costs, but that’s a massive leap. Cooper says the cause was a continued extension of the construction period and new design changes required by safety concerns.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is already reviewing nuclear plants planned for construction in the U.S. and has a task force assembled to see if there are lessons to be learned from the Japanese disaster. Nuclear provides 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S. Other countries like Germany are reviewing their nuclear plans, too.

Beyond cost, the Japanese nuclear disaster could lead to the development of next-generation nuclear technology coming “to a screeching halt” in the short term. That’s what Ray Rothrock, a partner at venture firm Venrock and a former nuclear engineer, predicted. Rothrock was working as a nuclear engineer back when Three Mile Island occurred and witnessed at least a six-month clamp-down on nuclear tech as the NRC reviewed the industry.

For a startup like NuScale, which is making a modular nuclear reactor design and is planning on submitting its application to the NRC for review within 18 months, a very busy and cautious NRC could mean a significantly longer time to pass regulatory hurdles and get to market.

It’s generally believed the ongoing situation at the nuclear plants run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. looks to have surpassed the severity of Three Mile Island. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu made that assessment in a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce committee. That could mean the cost effects, tech ramifications and policy decision are even greater than after previous disasters.

Image courtesy of rowens27.

  1. I’d question if much new information will be learned as a result of Fukushima that will warrant any major design changes to current (as opposed to historical and therefore already constructed) nuclear plant designs.

    The central problem at the Fukushima daiishi reactors was a station blackout, and it’s simply not clear how that would be such a problem for passively safe designs that have been explicitly conceived to remove shutdown decay heat without electrical power.

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  2. James Monachino Friday, March 25, 2011

    Sky is the limit –

    Risk vs. Safety is a moving target depending on the science of the moment. In the case of nuclear energy there is much we don’t know and what we don’t know can kill or disable us depending on the event.

    Issues we don’t know:

    -How do we neutralize security threats?
    -How do we anticipate the random impact of a natural disaster?
    -How do we calculate the cost of safety upgrades during the facilities operating life?

    -How much will it cost to terminate the program at the end of its life cycle?
    -How do we dispose of the waste?
    -What is the cost of one disaster (or more) regarding the economics of the entire program?

    Answer all the above questions and you have the cost of building one nuclear power plant that will have the loans guaranteed and insured by the US Government (Wallstreet and Big Banks will not participate without the guarantees).

    With costs so high and risks so onerous does nuclear power really make sense ($ cents) at this time when we have many viable alternatives to boiling water?

    Jim Monachino

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