Nuclear power is dead. Long live nuclear power. Nuclear power is the only way forward. Nuclear power is a red herring. Nuclear power is too dangerous. Nuclear power is the safest power source around. Nuclear is nothing. Nuclear is everything.
It is now generally agreed that the world must rapidly reduce carbon emissions in order to fight off dangerous climate change, but the “how” of that process remains up for debate. And within that debate, nothing seems to produce such starkly opposing viewpoints as nuclear energy. Some experts and advocates argue that carbon-free nuclear power represents the only real hope of keeping the planet’s temperature in check. Others claim that nuclear is risky, unnecessary and far too expensive to make a dent.
The same basic data set — nuclear plants currently in existence, those under construction, the status of new technologies, the history of costs and delays, and a few striking accidents — produces those totally contradictory opinions and predictions. Nuclear power is a Rorschach test: You see what you want to see — a rosy nuclear future or an old-world dinosaur in a slow death spiral — reflecting your own views on the energy present and future. In all likelihood, no one will be proven right or wrong for decades.
Billions and Billions
In general, the more experience accumulated with a given technology, the less it costs to build. This has been dramatically illustrated with the falling costs of wind and solar power. Nuclear, however has bucked the trend, instead demonstrating a sort of “negative learning curve” over time.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the actual costs of 75 of the first nuclear reactors built in the U.S. ran over initial estimates by more than 200 percent. More recently, costs have continued to balloon. Again according to UCS, the price tag for a new nuclear power plant jumped from between US$2 billion and US$4 billion in 2002 all the way US$9 billion in 2008. Put another way, the price shot from below US$2,000 per kilowatt in the early 2000s up to as high as US$8,000 per kilowatt by 2008.
Some projects in the U.S. seem to face delays and overruns at every turn. In September 2015, a South Carolina effort to build two new reactors at an existing plant was delayed for three years. In Georgia, a January 2015 filing by plant owner Southern Co. said that its additional two reactors would jump by US$700 million in cost and take an extra 18 months to build. These problems have a number of root causes, from licensing delays to simple construction errors, and no simple solution to the issue is likely to be found.
In Europe the situation is similar, with a couple of particularly egregious examples casting a pall over the industry. Construction began for a new reactor at the Finnish Olkiluoto 3 plant in 2005 but won’t finish until 2018, nine years late and more than US$5 billion over budget. A reactor in France, where nuclear is the primary source of power, is six years behind schedule and more than twice as expensive as projected.
Some experts, however, dispute the idea that the “negative learning curve” is intrinsic to the nuclear industry. In a recent paper Ted Nordhaus of the energy think tank The Breakthrough Institute pointed out that the history of nuclear plant construction costs varies dramatically by country. South Korea, for example, has demonstrated a fairly consistent drop in costs over time; it imported its first designs from foreign companies with more experience before homegrown designs took hold, and all the country’s plants are built and owned by a single utility. Nordhaus wrote, “with the right policies and institutions, nuclear plants can be built quickly, safely, and cheaply.”
Still, most countries have seen costs increase. As it stands, only China’s non-free market may allow for a truly rapid build-out of nuclear plants; the country’s current domination of the nuclear construction world reflects this idea, and the 2016 Five-Year Plan includes provisions to approve and build six to eight new plants each year.
Along with price hikes, the specter of major accidents hovers over every discussion of a nuclear scale-up. The industry, for its part, argues that the benefits of nuclear are worth the price tag. The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents plant owners, builders, designers, suppliers and related companies, notes that in the U.S. nuclear power generates as much as $50 billion each year from electricity sales and revenue, and provides around 100,000 jobs. The lack of carbon emissions, of course, only adds to the benefits.