Christopher Paine, Director, Nuclear Program, Washington, DC
In his recent article “Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear,” Eduardo Porter offers up nuclear energy as the best alternative to coal in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Regarding the real possibility that humankind will burn vast additional coal reserves in the decades to come, Porter writes: “The only way around this is to put something in coal’s place, at a reasonably competitive price. Neither the warm glow of the sun nor the restless power of the wind is going to do the trick, at least not soon enough to make a difference in the battle to prevent climate change.” What is it about nuclear power that its advocates feel obliged to promote it as a silver bullet for climate change, a role which, given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly ill-suited currently to perform?
Porter’s statement embraces a number of familiar errors. First, the task before us is not to arbitrarily designate, solely on the basis of alleged scalability, any single low-carbon “something” in coal’s place, but rather to address the required rapid phase-down of coal use by investing in a wide portfolio of available cleaner energy technologies, and deploying them roughly in order of their overall cost-effectiveness and timeliness in displacing CO2-equivalent emissions and in securing broader environmental sustainability goals.
This means, first and foremost, achieving significant and highly cost-effective demand-side reductions through increased investment in end-use energy efficiency and energy conservation measures – Porter completely neglects this critical dimension of the climate change problem – accompanied by a build-out of a balanced low-carbon electricity portfolio, including: the increased avoidance/reduction of transmission losses via distributed generation and improved technology; utility-scale wind power (both land and offshore); residential, commercial, and utility-scale solar; small hydro; small wind; geothermal; industrial waste-heat cogeneration; residential and commercial combined heat and power systems; landfill and agriculture biogas generation using fuel cells and/or small combustion turbines; and emerging wave/tidal/ocean thermal technologies.
Second, as anyone with a passing acquaintance with the economics of new-build nuclear knows, these plants are not currently competitive with wind and NGCC in the U.S. in deregulated power environments, and their massive capital costs and project completion risks make them politically unattractive even in some regulated markets, where nuclear’s above-market costs and risks can sometimes be passed on to disenfranchised “ratepayers,” or in the case of federal “loan guarantees,” federal taxpayers. Porter cites a now dated OECD study (published in 2010), jointly authored by the Paris-based International Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency, to support the notion that new-build nuclear can be had in “North America” for “$50 to $75 per megawatt-hour, depending on assumptions about construction costs and interest rates.” Not so. According to the most recent (Jan. 2013) analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which cites a range of $104.40 – $115.30 per Megawatt hour (in 2011 dollars before distribution charges) as the 30-year levelized electricity cost from a new build reactor in the U.S. entering service in 2018. The range of independent cost estimates puts the cost considerably higher, at $120 – $190 per Megawatt hour (MW-hr), because such estimates are very sensitive to the details of the financial model used, and the EIA assumes a 30-year cost recovery period and a weighted average cost of capital of 6.6 percent, whereas other financial structures require higher returns.
Porter’s piece also opines (incorrectly) regarding the near-term projected costs of utility scale renewable energy sources – “any alternative energy source will have a hard time competing against fossil fuels.” In reality, according to same EIA analysis cited above, new on-shore wind and geothermal plants, before subsidies, have a levelized cost range of $73.50 – $100.30 per megawatt-hour, while both “conventional” and “advanced” coal plants (without carbon capture and storage) fall within a range of $89.50 – $137.90 per megawatt hour.
Similarly, Porter loosely opines that “a megawatt/hour of solar power still costs in the hundreds [of dollars].” He seems to unaware that from 2008 to 2012, the average cost of a solar module dropped by 80%. According to a December 2012 report from DOE’s NREL and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, for utility-scale solar, the capacity-weighted average installed price declined from $6.20 per watt for projects installed during 2004-2008, to $3.90 per watt for projects installed during 2009-2010, and to $3.40/W for projects installed in 2011.
On an installed capital cost basis, that makes solar PV at $3400 per kilowatt in 2011 considerably less expensive than new build nuclear, which EIA projects at $5,530 per kilowatt. The mean of independent-analyst estimates for nuclear new-build capital cost is actually higher, at about $6200 per kilowatt, which also happens to be the projected cost of the twin nuclear units now under construction at Plant Vogtle, in Georgia, which have a nominal capacity of 2,234 MW and a projected cost of around $14 billion.
The current unsubsidized levelized cost-range of utility-scale solar PV plants, which is obviously highly location-dependent at $112.50 – $224.40 per MW-hr, now overlaps that of nuclear plants, with a projected average cost of $144.30 per MW-hr. Because they generate power onsite, avoiding transmission and distribution charges, smaller distributed solar rooftop power plants are actually grid-competitive now in some locations with the delivered cost of peaking power from conventional sources, and the next EIA analysis will almost certainly show a continuing drop in the installed cost of PV solar power in both utility-scale and rooftop applications.
In sum, because the complete nuclear fuel cycle relates intrinsically to nuclear weapons, degrades land and groundwater resources, discharges up to 2/3 of the energy it produces as waste heat into our already overburdened lakes and rivers, generates long-lived nuclear wastes that must be responsibly managed for millennia, requires vigilant control of radiation hazards to workers and neighboring populations, is slow to deploy, and requires massive amounts of upfront capital investment, nuclear power does not recommend itself as a broadly applicable, frontline defense against climate change. That said, is it still “on the table” as a potential tool against climate disruption, particularly if more benign and cost effective iterations of the technology can be developed, and stronger international barriers to proliferation can be developed to guard against its misuse in nuclear weapons? I think the answer to that is “yes,” but some modicum of humility, accuracy, and realism from nuclear power’s proponents is sorely needed.
To even sustain nuclear power’s current 19% share of grid connected electricity in the U.S., all the capacity represented by the roughly 100 currently operational nuclear units will need to be replaced in the 2032-2052 timeframe (assuming all current operating licenses are extended from 40 to 60 years), and sooner than that if more plants (like San Onofre and Crystal River recently) fail prematurely, or are retired for economic reasons (like Dominion’s smaller Kewaunee unit in Wisconsin that was recently retired). As of now, nuclear power is positioned to fail achieving even this limited objective, much less the wildly ambitious and wholly unsubstantiated role outlined for it in Porter’s piece.
A reasonable and realistic approach to nuclear power would be to prioritize deployment of more benign and cost-effective energy alternatives, meeting the carbon reduction targets that the best available scientific analysis deems critical to avoiding catastrophic climate disruption.
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