Nuclear Power Pros And Cons

by Bradford Plumer | July 16, 2010

Over at Slate, Nina Shen Rastogi has a nice primer on the pros and cons of nuclear energy. The pros are pretty obvious—nuclear is a low-carbon energy source that, unlike wind or solar, can run all the time without the need to worry about storage. But there are downsides, too. Like cost:

[T]he question of whether new reactors would be the most cost-effective way to lower electricity-related emissions is still hotly debated. The fuel itself is relatively inexpensive, at least for the time being. But as Michael Grunwald noted in Time, recent price estimates for a large plant in Florida came in at $12 billion to $18 billion, and that's before you consider the fact that the nuclear industry has a history of 250-percent cost overruns.

Some analysts say alternative methods would yield much more climate-saving bang for our buck than nuclear power. For example, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute argues that we should be investing in general efficiency measures and "micropower" (a catch-all term that includes cogeneration of heat and electricity, plus renewables other than big hydropower operations).

A little more on this. In theory, this debate could resolve itself if we put a price on carbon and utilities just figured out for themselves what the cheapest, easiest ways to cut their emissions were. (Of course, it wouldn't work quite so simply—note that, thanks to the way state regulations work, many utilities lose money if they invest in efficiency, since it means they're selling less power. So the playing field still wouldn't be totally level. Check out my old piece on utilities for all the weird ways in which electricity markets are badly distorted.)

Yet it's not clear we'd see a nuclear boom even with a carbon price. A recent MIT report on "The Future of Nuclear Power" concluded that  under the House cap-and-trade program, nuclear power plants would still have difficulty attracting financing, partly because they're prone to cost overruns and delays. (Just look at the EPR reactor being built in Finland.) That's why the nuclear industry is asking for government loan guarantees on top of carbon pricing. They argue that once the first wave of new plants get built—remember, there hasn't been a new reactor ordered since the 1970s—then the costs will start tumbling down. That's a hard argument to assess.

Meanwhile, there's the safety question. As Rastogi details, nuclear reactors do appear to be quite safe—even those recent radioactive leaks in Vermont ended up harming no one. And there hasn't been a single nuclear emergency in the United States since Three Mile Island in 1979. But wait a minute… that date sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? Oh, right. That was also the year of the last major oil disaster in the Gulf—the Ixtec spill off the coast of Mexico. In the three decades that followed, everyone assumed—wrongly as we now know—that improved safety technology had made such accidents obsolete. "If something doesn't happen since 1979, you begin to take your eye off of that thing," said one senior administration official recently, explaining why no one expected the BP disaster. Worth noting.

Update: In comments, uncle_sven offers a smart counterpoint on the safety question that I thought I'd highlight:

The field of nuclear engineering hasn't exactly been static since 1979. Three Mile Island , and to a much, much larger extent, the Chernobyl incident, forced a lot of rethinking of reactor designs with an even more intense focus on safety. As a result, modern reactor designs (pebble beds, et al.) are safer than their predecessors by a wide margin. Petroleum engineering is chasing different goals (harder-to-get oil, rather than safer wells). Not to say nuclear accidents are impossible, but comparing oil spills to radioactive releases may not be the most precise metric to use here.

(Flickr photo credit: flokru)

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