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Twilight of nuclear power?

The Economist is characterizing it as “the dream that failed.” Is that too harsh a judgment?

March 15, 2012


This week, which began with the first anniversary of the earthquake/tsunami in Japan and resulting nuclear plant melt-downs, The Economist is running a very interesting special section on nuclear power under the banner, “the dream that failed.” While it’s well worth reading in its entirety, the section suggests that nuke plants will continue to run (with exceptions such as Japan and Germany), but few new ones will be built (with exceptions such as China).

This decline will be related to cost and politics more than safety. Ultimately one of the things that will reduce its practicality is the fact that it is so huge and expensive. While it might be possible to build a wind turbine with an untried design, or even a coal-fired plant with an experimental super-duper-ultra-critical boiler, such an experimental approach is simply not practical for a nuke plant. There is so much money at stake, anything that gets built has to work and make back the cost. This makes technical innovation very slow. Current estimates suggest that a nuclear plant costs five- to 10-times the equivalent generating capacity using combined-cycle gas turbines. Who is going to build a new plant in the U.S. with that kind of cost? Can a utility justify $9,000 per kW for a new plant? Would you loan money to a utility so it could launch a nuke plant project?

Compared to the rest of the world, China is going crazy with new construction. But even at their break-neck pace, by 2020 less than 5% of domestic generation will be nuclear. Let’s hope the builders learned from the companies that built substandard schools that pancaked during the earthquakes in Sichuan. Countries that do not have fully transparent permitting and inspection mechanisms (which applies to Japan as we learned after the tsunami), aren’t the greatest candidates for expanding nuclear construction, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping China.

Ultimately the arguments come down to one point: nuclear power is good for reliable base-loaded generation free of global warming consequences. It is really the only technology that can make that statement, which makes it difficult to dismiss entirely. The possibilities of renewables are limited. When we reach the end of that approach, we will still have to look at fossil fuels or nuclear. It will take a hefty carbon tax on fossil fuels and cheaper nuclear plants to close the huge cost gap. All energy will be more expensive as a result, and maybe it should be.