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The Economic Viability of Nuclear Power Is Only Going Down

Policy Analysis
Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Last year the Trump administration’s Energy Department announced the launch of a media campaign to counter what an official called “misinformation” about nuclear power. We haven’t noticed an upsurge in pro-nuclear news – because there is none to report.

On the first day of 2019, the energy industry trade journal Power asked whether new technology can save nuclear power by making new reactors economically feasible – not only to replace coal and natural gas but also to compete with the rapidly dropping cost of renewable energy. The verdict from Peter Bradford, a former member of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

. . .  [N]ew nuclear is so far outside the competitive range. . . . Not only can nuclear power not stop global warming, it is probably not even an essential part of the solution to global warming.

His bleak outlook is shared by the authors of a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors – an engineer, an economist and a national security analyst – reviewed the prospects for so-called advanced designs for large nuclear reactors, and for much smaller modular reactors that could avoid the billions in construction costs and overruns that have plagued the nuclear energy industry since the beginning.

They concluded that no new designs can possibly reach the market before the middle of the century. They cite the breeder reactor that, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, received $100 billion in public development funds worldwide over six decades and still did not get off the ground.

The authors say there may be an opening for small modular reactors but that it will be very difficult to find a market for these reactors without – as is always the case with nuclear power – a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars. “For that to happen,” they argue, “several hundred billion dollars of direct and indirect subsidies would be needed to support their development and deployment over the next several decades, since present competitive energy markets will not induce their development and adoption.”

Despite the past failure and poor future outlook, support for more nuclear funding persists. In a recent study, the Energy Department pointed to the $50 billion in federal incentives provided to renewables like solar and wind power between 2005 and 2015, implying that such policies can have a similar impact on modular nuclear reactors. But unlike nuclear power, the costs of wind and solar have dropped dramatically, to the point where the cost of new, unsubsidized utility-scale wind and solar power investment can now compete with that of existing coal and nuclear power plants.

The bigger question is whether nuclear power is needed at all. 

Nuclear advocates’ claims that nuclear power is required to fight climate change falls short. California met its climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 four years early by turning off its nuclear plants and setting policies that prioritize renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage investments over natural gas plant additions.

An argument advanced in the Energy Department report is that, to ensure that power can be delivered 24/7, large coal and nuclear power plants designed to run day and night – also known as baseload plants – need to be replaced by small nuclear units that run day and night. However, mounting, real-world evidence refutes this assertion.

Recent studies from New York and California show that it is cheaper to invest in renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage in order to replace aging nuclear plants than it is to keep the existing plants running. Savings range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars – achieved without any impact on electric system reliability.

Nuclear power belongs in a museum. We shouldn’t continue to squander public dollars on a technology that will never make economic sense. We should divert resources into improving and deploying wind, solar, energy efficiency and energy storage technology that we know will keep the lights on, effectively reduce carbon emissions and cost what we can afford to pay.  

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