What do we want?

Isn’t nuclear power just too expensive?

Today’s reactors are large scale, long-term construction projects requiring very large up front capital costs. This, more than any other factor, has inhibited the further expansion of nuclear power around the world. If nuclear power is to have a future, then the costs associated with bringing reactors on line will have to come down from where they are today. Yet surprisingly, installed nuclear energy in the United States is among our cheapest sources of electricity. America’s nuclear power plants are cash cows for the big utility companies that own them because their construction costs are paid off and the fuel and operating costs are relatively low. With nuclear, like with hydro-electric dams, the initial investment is great, but those costs when amortizedover many decades render an entirely different picture in terms of economics. A big difficulty is that private, unregulated energy markets do not encourage long term energy infrastructure investments.

Current nuclear power construction projects underway around the world consist of the very first of this new Generation III design ever built and have yet to benefit from the economies of scale that come with successive builds. The two EPR reactor projects in France and Finland are wildly over budget and behind schedule. Yet the same reactors currently being built in China are both on budget and on schedule. It remains to be seen whether the two AP-1000 reactors currently under construction in Georgia come in as planned.

The best way to make nuclear energy cheaper is through the mass production of components, the utilization of off-the-shelf technology, and simpler designs utilizing passive safety: this is the promise of many of these new advanced designs. Political and economic commitments must be made to build them for the price to come down, just as we’ve done with wind and solar energy, which have been heavily subsidized in order to develop a viable market capable of benefiting from economies of scale.

It’s important to remember too that barring an international agreement to put a price on carbon (that presently shows no sign of materializing) both renewable energy and nuclear power will face challenges in competing with fossil fuels. Until recently, it was assumed that the cost of fossil fuels would continue to rise as we deplete known resources (remember “the end of oil”?). In fact, as our technology advances in all areas, so too does our ability to locate and extract fossil fuels from ever more remote locations – the current controversy over the XL Pipeline and hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale are but two recent newsworthy examples. The cost issue is affects all non-CO2 emitting sources of energy, not just nuclear.