This is a continuation of a two-part series. In Part II, we will discuss:
- Nuclear Power Plant Costs
- Aging Nuclear Power Plants
- NIMBY Factor
Nuclear Power Plant Costs
In Part I, we discussed the nuclear accidents, radioactive contamination and health effects. As serious as these disastrous consequences are, there is a more fundamental failure of nuclear energy to establish itself as an economically competitive means of generating electricity. It is too costly to build since the cost of a 1,000 MWe nuclear power plant has risen from $1.1 billion in 1987 to $9 billion today with a 8-9 year permitting and construction schedule1. A recent Cambridge Energy Research Associates report found that capital costs had risen 130% just since 20002.
As a comparison, a series of four 1,000 MWe 24/7 solar-hydrogen power plants could have been built in 4-5 years for the cost of one 1,000 MWe nuclear power plant ($9 billion).
Recently, licensing and construction of a U.S. 2,200 MWe nuclear power plant was announced costing $20 billion which was later revised to $22 billion with expected completion date of 2022. Due to increased cost, some of the investors have pulled out3.
These aging "dinosaurs" will cost the rate-payer $ billions to decommission and dismantle them. Some States electric utility companies have included a cost item such as: "decommissioning nuclear plant", or "nuclear power phase out", etc. These line-item costs are usually a flat amount such as $0.10 up to $0.60 monthly. For example, at $0.50 per month and for 200,000 households, this amounts to $12 billion over a 10 year period, i.e. the extended licensing of a power plant.
The current U.S. Government loan guarantee of $36.1 billion for nuclear power is a waste of resources. In the past, direct subsidies by the U.S. Government to nuclear energy amounted to $115 billion between 1947 and 1999. An additional $145 billion was given by the Federal Government for indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar energy combined totaled only $5.5 billion4. The so-called "French nuclear miracle" embraced by some U.S. Government policy makers as a model for the U.S. is a misconception that "crowds out" investments in renewable energy5. Thus, nuclear power is no longer an economic option.
Aging Nuclear Power Plants
The oldest commercial power plants, Calder Hall and Chapel Cross in the U.K. were built in the 1950's and projected to have a 20-25 year life. However, they were closed down after 50 years due to repairs and operational costs6. In addition, of the listed nuclear power plants, many were never built or have been cancelled6.
The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 limits the duration of nuclear operating licenses to a maximum of 40 years7. About 38 of the U.S. remaining 104 nuclear power plants are now almost 40 years old which is the licensed expected lifetime. The owners of these plants are scrambling to get an extended license for another 10 years. However, this will bring on strong Government scrutiny concerning the plants' safety.
The aging Davis-Besses nuclear plant in Toledo, Ohio is one of the most problem-plagued nuclear plants in the entire U.S. 8. Workers repairing one of the five cracked control rod drive mechanism (CRDM) nozzles found a large hole in the reactor vessel head next to the CRDM nozzle. The CRDM nozzles connect motors that insert control rods into the reactor pile to shut down the reactor. If the control rods failed to be inserted, there would have been a "runaway" nuclear reaction and melt down.
Pipes crack or break springing leaks with regularity. Pumps stall or "freeze-up". Nuclear steam generator tubes burst and steel components get brittle from radiation bombardment. These and other problems are getting worse as the U.S. nuclear reactors get older9. Other reactors in South Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Florida and Michigan have seen similar stress cracks or leaks9. A back-up pump designed to send water to steam generators failed at the Callaway nuclear plant (Missouri). A piece of foam from a storage tank seal had weakened with age, broken loose and lodged in the pump's intake valve. At the Quad Cities nuclear power station (Illinois), a jet pump inside the reactor vessel broke requiring a shutdown. GE had recommended replacing the jet pumps in the 1980s but they never were9.
Not In My Back Yard -- NIMBY Factor
In a few southeastern U.S. cities, stakeholder meetings were held along with nuclear plant potential builders and a NRC representative to site new nuclear power plants. At the end of a heated discussion, the nuclear plant builders were "booed" and told to get out of town and do not come back, i.e. NIMBY factor.
The voters of North Carolina rejected the plan for rate hikes to finance new nuclear power plants10. Sacramento California's municipal utility's nuclear power plant was shut down due to a referendum by the voters. This utility company has already invested in renewable energy with electric power rates competitive with nuclear power.
Vermont has a strong anti-nuclear movement. This State is the only one in the U.S. that has the authority to renew a nuclear power license. At the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, tritium has been found in ground water (70.5 microcuries/liter) from deteriorating underground pipes. This is three times the Federal safety standard. The Yankee nuclear power plant license is up in 2012 and the Vermont Government will not renew it which will require shutting it down. Tritium from 27 other U.S. nuclear power plants has also been found in groundwater11.
A recent report from the German Federal Ministry of Environment (2009) doubts the resurgence of nuclear power plants12. Germany has shut down the remaining seven nuclear power plants for a complete and thorough inspection and review13. Electricity planners are now favoring faster and cheaper renewable energy over commitments to massive centralized nuclear power stations.
In 2000, the world recognized nuclear power as a dirty, dangerous and unnecessary technology by refusing to give it "greenhouse" gas credits during the UN Climate Change talks in The Hague. Nuclear power was dealt a further blow when an UN Sustainable Development Converence refused to label nuclear a "sustainable technology" in April, 200114.
Today, a pound of silicon can produce more electricity than a pound of enriched (3.5%) uranium for nuclear power electricity. Advances are being made for the storage of solar-electricity such as hydrogen-to-fuel-cells for 24/7 solar power plants. In addition, nuclear power electricity sells for $0.15/kwhr while wind-power sells for $0.05/kwhr. Nuclear power is dead.
Bibliography -- Part II
- Reynolds, W.D., "The Solar-Hydrogen Economy -- An Analysis" pg 8-9; www.energypulse.net
- See: www.edisonfoundation.net/Rising_Utility_Construction_Cost/
- "Nuclear Power Plant to Cost More, Start-up Delayed" see; www.powergenworldwide.com/index/display
- Gorbachev, M. "Chernobyl 25 Years Later: Many Lessons Learned" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67, pp 77-80. 2011
- "VLS Study Proposes the French Nuclear Approach is a Failed Model the U.S. Should not Embrace", Institute for Energy and Environment, Vermont Law School report, 10 Sept. 2010
- Australian Uranium Association. Uranium Information Center, "Plans for New Reactors Worldwide" paper 19, pg 4, March 2008.
- Naus, D.J., Graves Ill, H.L., "Detection of Aging Nuclear Power Plant Structures" NRC Agency, Washington, D.C. 2000: see: www.orml.gov/-webworks/cpr/
- "Davis-Besse Atomic Reactor: 20 More Years of Radioactive Russian Roulette on the Great Lakes Shore" see: www.behondnuclear.com/storage/Davis-Besse-Backgrounder/ ; see also www.webloggreenpeace.org/cgi-bin/
- "Nuclear Plant Fiascoes Likely With Age, Secret Study Suggest", see www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/
- "Consumers Against Rate Hikes" Green Peace News release, 23 Feb 2011
- " Leaks Spotlight Aging Nuclear Plants" www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35286159/ns/
- "German Report Doubts Nuclear Resurgence" see: www.cen-online.org/pg40/9-7-2009/ ; see also www.bmu.de/english/nuclear_safety/
- "Germany Set to Abandon Nuclear Power for Good" 3/25/11 www.renewableenergyworld.com/real/partner/free-green-concepts/
- UN Sustainable Development Conference, Ninth session, April 2001, see www.greenpeace.org/mediteranean/campaign/