Energy 107: The Nuclear Option

Let’s say those people who believe we have a climate crisis on our hands agree to disagree with those who don’t. And that those who don’t agree—or don’t care—agree to look at the true cost-benefit analysis of energy in the U.S. Of A.. If such were the case, there would likely be agreement that it makes economic sense to look beyond fossil fuels. As already mentioned, fossil fuels will soon be uneconomic and CEOs of fossil fuel companies don’t want the consequences of mining in their backyard. Exxon Mobil Corp has, ironically, signed a 12-year lease to buy solar power that will power their production of oil in West Texas.⁠1 Fortunately, we have options, not least, nuclear power. It provides 11 percent of the world’s electricity. The plants are big, and provide a reliable source of power. Pretty much all scenarios of how we go forward include nuclear power to bridge the gap between now and the future; and if you are talking carbon, think about this: If not nuclear, we fall back on coal-fired plants. So why not build more and bigger nuclear plants? What’s the hold up?

Economics, dear Watson. Nuclear plants are hugely expensive to build. As a result, unlike most other sources of energy, the cost of nuclear power has gone up in price and is now four to eight times more costly than four decades ago.⁠2  And then there are the risks and costs of a meltdown. Three Mile Island, a contained meltdown that occurred in 1980, cost $1 billion to repair and decontaminate, and took fourteen years. Meantime, they had “to fund an additional $2-3 billion in capital expenditures to insure reliable electric service to their customers.⁠3” It was a solar flare moment. According to the Comptroller General’s report: “The nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island power plant triggered a number of serious problems for the General Public Utilities Corporation, including a near financial crisis, as it moved to purchase high-cost replacement power to maintain service to its customers. During the year following the accident, the Corporation was recovering only a small part of the $233 million of power costs from utility rates.”⁠4 

None of these costs included the property damages, which totalled $2.4 billion.

Although the government states there were no health effects, and therefore no public threat,⁠5 interviews of residents show that diseases consistent with nuclear radiation contamination did happen, and that hundreds of lawsuits were settled out of court, and millions of dollars compensated parents of children born with birth defects.⁠6

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster cost several billion dollars.

Japan’s more recent nuclear meltdown could cost $200 billion dollars. 

Compare that to Hurricane Katrina’s cost of $125-250 billion.⁠7

But so what? Nuclear plants have insurance. The Price-Anderson Act⁠8 was enacted in 1957 and provides nuclear liability insurance. Nuclear plant owners pay for enough insurance to cover the equivalent of the physical plant. Which is like insuring the bumper on a car. If and/or when there’s a contained or all out meltdown, their insurance won’t cover the externalities: the environmental damage and health costs of a meltdown. Ah! But there is insurance for that, too: the insurer of last resort: our government, also known as you and me. Because nuclear power plants epitomize risk but they also provide an important, one might argue a vital role. Therefore the risk should “be socialized. The state needs to accept responsibility as insurer of last resort, as with everything else in industrial societies, though attempts have been made to represent this as a specifically nuclear subsidy.⁠9

The article I just footnoted is an interesting (in a Chinese curse kind of way) read of the World Nuclear Association’s perspective. They prove their glowing butt . . . resses are covered—their economic numbers and responsibilities are clear. Should that make us feel better? Nuclear power plants boil away. We, in New Hampshire, blithely turn on our lights, and if anything happens, there’s money to pay out. A perfect storm.

In the book (and website) Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, there is a brief comment about “no regret solutions”.  In that book, almost all [the solutions] are no regret solutions. Regardless of the carbon impact, the actions described are ones that we would want to take for the good of the environment, and human health and well-being. Nuclear energy is an exception. Nuclear energy is a regrets solution. In part because it results in a lot of nuclear waste that will take  hundreds of thousands of years to breakdown. But more because if an accident does happen—and accidents do happen—the toll is devastating, to the extent that the cost of nuclear power is most certainly not economic. 

Woe is us. Fossil fuels on the wane. Nuclear power is possibly too risky and expensive. What are we to do? 

We already are.

Next Friday: The Transition to Renewables: Will it work?


1 Exxon Mobil Corp. will use renewable energy to produce oil in West Texas.

Under 12-year agreements with Denmark’s Orsted A/S, Exxon will buy 500 megawatts of wind and solar power in the Permian Basin, the fastest growing U.S. oil field. It is the largest ever renewable power contract signed by an oil company, according to Bloomberg NEF. Terms weren’t disclosed.⁠1


2 Drawdown page 19